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Title: The Aspern Papers
Author: James, Henry
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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THE ASPERN PAPERS

By Henry James


First American book edition,

Macmillan and Co., 1888.



I


I had taken Mrs. Prest into my confidence; in truth without her I
should have made but little advance, for the fruitful idea in the whole
business dropped from her friendly lips. It was she who invented the
short cut, who severed the Gordian knot. It is not supposed to be the
nature of women to rise as a general thing to the largest and most
liberal view--I mean of a practical scheme; but it has struck me that
they sometimes throw off a bold conception--such as a man would not have
risen to--with singular serenity. “Simply ask them to take you in on the
footing of a lodger”--I don’t think that unaided I should have risen to
that. I was beating about the bush, trying to be ingenious, wondering
by what combination of arts I might become an acquaintance, when she
offered this happy suggestion that the way to become an acquaintance was
first to become an inmate. Her actual knowledge of the Misses Bordereau
was scarcely larger than mine, and indeed I had brought with me from
England some definite facts which were new to her. Their name had been
mixed up ages before with one of the greatest names of the century, and
they lived now in Venice in obscurity, on very small means, unvisited,
unapproachable, in a dilapidated old palace on an out-of-the-way canal:
this was the substance of my friend’s impression of them. She herself
had been established in Venice for fifteen years and had done a great
deal of good there; but the circle of her benevolence did not include
the two shy, mysterious and, as it was somehow supposed, scarcely
respectable Americans (they were believed to have lost in their long
exile all national quality, besides having had, as their name implied,
some French strain in their origin), who asked no favors and desired no
attention. In the early years of her residence she had made an attempt
to see them, but this had been successful only as regards the little
one, as Mrs. Prest called the niece; though in reality as I afterward
learned she was considerably the bigger of the two. She had heard Miss
Bordereau was ill and had a suspicion that she was in want; and she had
gone to the house to offer assistance, so that if there were suffering
(and American suffering), she should at least not have it on her
conscience. The “little one” received her in the great cold, tarnished
Venetian sala, the central hall of the house, paved with marble and
roofed with dim crossbeams, and did not even ask her to sit down. This
was not encouraging for me, who wished to sit so fast, and I remarked
as much to Mrs. Prest. She however replied with profundity, “Ah, but
there’s all the difference: I went to confer a favor and you will go
to ask one. If they are proud you will be on the right side.” And she
offered to show me their house to begin with--to row me thither in her
gondola. I let her know that I had already been to look at it half a
dozen times; but I accepted her invitation, for it charmed me to hover
about the place. I had made my way to it the day after my arrival in
Venice (it had been described to me in advance by the friend in England
to whom I owed definite information as to their possession of the
papers), and I had besieged it with my eyes while I considered my plan
of campaign. Jeffrey Aspern had never been in it that I knew of;
but some note of his voice seemed to abide there by a roundabout
implication, a faint reverberation.

Mrs. Prest knew nothing about the papers, but she was interested in my
curiosity, as she was always interested in the joys and sorrows of her
friends. As we went, however, in her gondola, gliding there under the
sociable hood with the bright Venetian picture framed on either side by
the movable window, I could see that she was amused by my infatuation,
the way my interest in the papers had become a fixed idea. “One would
think you expected to find in them the answer to the riddle of the
universe,” she said; and I denied the impeachment only by replying
that if I had to choose between that precious solution and a bundle
of Jeffrey Aspern’s letters I knew indeed which would appear to me the
greater boon. She pretended to make light of his genius, and I took
no pains to defend him. One doesn’t defend one’s god: one’s god is
in himself a defense. Besides, today, after his long comparative
obscuration, he hangs high in the heaven of our literature, for all the
world to see; he is a part of the light by which we walk. The most I
said was that he was no doubt not a woman’s poet: to which she rejoined
aptly enough that he had been at least Miss Bordereau’s. The strange
thing had been for me to discover in England that she was still alive:
it was as if I had been told Mrs. Siddons was, or Queen Caroline, or
the famous Lady Hamilton, for it seemed to me that she belonged to a
generation as extinct. “Why, she must be tremendously old--at least a
hundred,” I had said; but on coming to consider dates I saw that it was
not strictly necessary that she should have exceeded by very much the
common span. Nonetheless she was very far advanced in life, and her
relations with Jeffrey Aspern had occurred in her early womanhood.
“That is her excuse,” said Mrs. Prest, half-sententiously and yet also
somewhat as if she were ashamed of making a speech so little in the
real tone of Venice. As if a woman needed an excuse for having loved the
divine poet! He had been not only one of the most brilliant minds of
his day (and in those years, when the century was young, there were,
as everyone knows, many), but one of the most genial men and one of the
handsomest.

The niece, according to Mrs. Prest, was not so old, and she risked the
conjecture that she was only a grandniece. This was possible; I had
nothing but my share in the very limited knowledge of my English fellow
worshipper John Cumnor, who had never seen the couple. The world, as I
say, had recognized Jeffrey Aspern, but Cumnor and I had recognized him
most. The multitude, today, flocked to his temple, but of that temple he
and I regarded ourselves as the ministers. We held, justly, as I think,
that we had done more for his memory than anyone else, and we had done
it by opening lights into his life. He had nothing to fear from us
because he had nothing to fear from the truth, which alone at such a
distance of time we could be interested in establishing. His early
death had been the only dark spot in his life, unless the papers in Miss
Bordereau’s hands should perversely bring out others. There had been an
impression about 1825 that he had “treated her badly,” just as there had
been an impression that he had “served,” as the London populace says,
several other ladies in the same way. Each of these cases Cumnor and
I had been able to investigate, and we had never failed to acquit
him conscientiously of shabby behavior. I judged him perhaps more
indulgently than my friend; certainly, at any rate, it appeared to me
that no man could have walked straighter in the given circumstances.
These were almost always awkward. Half the women of his time, to speak
liberally, had flung themselves at his head, and out of this pernicious
fashion many complications, some of them grave, had not failed to arise.
He was not a woman’s poet, as I had said to Mrs. Prest, in the modern
phase of his reputation; but the situation had been different when
the man’s own voice was mingled with his song. That voice, by every
testimony, was one of the sweetest ever heard. “Orpheus and the
Maenads!” was the exclamation that rose to my lips when I first turned
over his correspondence. Almost all the Maenads were unreasonable, and
many of them insupportable; it struck me in short that he was kinder,
more considerate than, in his place (if I could imagine myself in such a
place!) I should have been.

It was certainly strange beyond all strangeness, and I shall not take
up space with attempting to explain it, that whereas in all these other
lines of research we had to deal with phantoms and dust, the mere echoes
of echoes, the one living source of information that had lingered
on into our time had been unheeded by us. Every one of Aspern’s
contemporaries had, according to our belief, passed away; we had not
been able to look into a single pair of eyes into which his had looked
or to feel a transmitted contact in any aged hand that his had touched.
Most dead of all did poor Miss Bordereau appear, and yet she alone had
survived. We exhausted in the course of months our wonder that we had
not found her out sooner, and the substance of our explanation was that
she had kept so quiet. The poor lady on the whole had had reason for
doing so. But it was a revelation to us that it was possible to keep so
quiet as that in the latter half of the nineteenth century--the age of
newspapers and telegrams and photographs and interviewers. And she had
taken no great trouble about it either: she had not hidden herself away
in an undiscoverable hole; she had boldly settled down in a city of
exhibition. The only secret of her safety that we could perceive was
that Venice contained so many curiosities that were greater than she.
And then accident had somehow favored her, as was shown for example in
the fact that Mrs. Prest had never happened to mention her to me, though
I had spent three weeks in Venice--under her nose, as it were--five
years before. Mrs. Prest had not mentioned this much to anyone; she
appeared almost to have forgotten she was there. Of course she had not
the responsibilities of an editor. It was no explanation of the
old woman’s having eluded us to say that she lived abroad, for our
researches had again and again taken us (not only by correspondence
but by personal inquiry) to France, to Germany, to Italy, in which
countries, not counting his important stay in England, so many of the
too few years of Aspern’s career were spent. We were glad to think at
least that in all our publishings (some people consider I believe that
we have overdone them), we had only touched in passing and in the most
discreet manner on Miss Bordereau’s connection. Oddly enough, even if we
had had the material (and we often wondered what had become of it), it
would have been the most difficult episode to handle.

The gondola stopped, the old palace was there; it was a house of the
class which in Venice carries even in extreme dilapidation the dignified
name. “How charming! It’s gray and pink!” my companion exclaimed;
and that is the most comprehensive description of it. It was not
particularly old, only two or three centuries; and it had an air not so
much of decay as of quiet discouragement, as if it had rather missed its
career. But its wide front, with a stone balcony from end to end of the
piano nobile or most important floor, was architectural enough, with the
aid of various pilasters and arches; and the stucco with which in the
intervals it had long ago been endued was rosy in the April afternoon.
It overlooked a clean, melancholy, unfrequented canal, which had
a narrow riva or convenient footway on either side. “I don’t know
why--there are no brick gables,” said Mrs. Prest, “but this corner has
seemed to me before more Dutch than Italian, more like Amsterdam than
like Venice. It’s perversely clean, for reasons of its own; and though
you can pass on foot scarcely anyone ever thinks of doing so. It has the
air of a Protestant Sunday. Perhaps the people are afraid of the Misses
Bordereau. I daresay they have the reputation of witches.”

I forget what answer I made to this--I was given up to two other
reflections. The first of these was that if the old lady lived in such a
big, imposing house she could not be in any sort of misery and therefore
would not be tempted by a chance to let a couple of rooms. I expressed
this idea to Mrs. Prest, who gave me a very logical reply. “If she
didn’t live in a big house how could it be a question of her having
rooms to spare? If she were not amply lodged herself you would lack
ground to approach her. Besides, a big house here, and especially in
this quartier perdu, proves nothing at all: it is perfectly compatible
with a state of penury. Dilapidated old palazzi, if you will go out of
the way for them, are to be had for five shillings a year. And as for
the people who live in them--no, until you have explored Venice socially
as much as I have you can form no idea of their domestic desolation.
They live on nothing, for they have nothing to live on.” The other idea
that had come into my head was connected with a high blank wall which
appeared to confine an expanse of ground on one side of the house.
Blank I call it, but it was figured over with the patches that please a
painter, repaired breaches, crumblings of plaster, extrusions of brick
that had turned pink with time; and a few thin trees, with the poles of
certain rickety trellises, were visible over the top. The place was a
garden, and apparently it belonged to the house. It suddenly occurred to
me that if it did belong to the house I had my pretext.

I sat looking out on all this with Mrs. Prest (it was covered with the
golden glow of Venice) from the shade of our felze, and she asked me if
I would go in then, while she waited for me, or come back another time.
At first I could not decide--it was doubtless very weak of me. I wanted
still to think I MIGHT get a footing, and I was afraid to meet failure,
for it would leave me, as I remarked to my companion, without another
arrow for my bow. “Why not another?” she inquired as I sat there
hesitating and thinking it over; and she wished to know why even now
and before taking the trouble of becoming an inmate (which might be
wretchedly uncomfortable after all, even if it succeeded), I had not
the resource of simply offering them a sum of money down. In that way I
might obtain the documents without bad nights.

“Dearest lady,” I exclaimed, “excuse the impatience of my tone when
I suggest that you must have forgotten the very fact (surely I
communicated it to you) which pushed me to throw myself upon your
ingenuity. The old woman won’t have the documents spoken of; they are
personal, delicate, intimate, and she hasn’t modern notions, God bless
her! If I should sound that note first I should certainly spoil the
game. I can arrive at the papers only by putting her off her guard, and
I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic practices.
Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I am sorry for it, but for
Jeffrey Aspern’s sake I would do worse still. First I must take tea with
her; then tackle the main job.” And I told over what had happened to
John Cumnor when he wrote to her. No notice whatever had been taken of
his first letter, and the second had been answered very sharply, in six
lines, by the niece. “Miss Bordereau requested her to say that she
could not imagine what he meant by troubling them. They had none of Mr.
Aspern’s papers, and if they had should never think of showing them
to anyone on any account whatever. She didn’t know what he was talking
about and begged he would let her alone.” I certainly did not want to be
met that way.

“Well,” said Mrs. Prest after a moment, provokingly, “perhaps after all
they haven’t any of his things. If they deny it flat how are you sure?”

“John Cumnor is sure, and it would take me long to tell you how his
conviction, or his very strong presumption--strong enough to stand
against the old lady’s not unnatural fib--has built itself up. Besides,
he makes much of the internal evidence of the niece’s letter.”

“The internal evidence?”

“Her calling him ‘Mr. Aspern.’”

“I don’t see what that proves.”

“It proves familiarity, and familiarity implies the possession of
mementoes, or relics. I can’t tell you how that ‘Mr.’ touches me--how it
bridges over the gulf of time and brings our hero near to me--nor what
an edge it gives to my desire to see Juliana. You don’t say, ‘Mr.’
Shakespeare.”

“Would I, any more, if I had a box full of his letters?”

“Yes, if he had been your lover and someone wanted them!” And I added
that John Cumnor was so convinced, and so all the more convinced by
Miss Bordereau’s tone, that he would have come himself to Venice on the
business were it not that for him there was the obstacle that it would
be difficult to disprove his identity with the person who had written
to them, which the old ladies would be sure to suspect in spite of
dissimulation and a change of name. If they were to ask him point-blank
if he were not their correspondent it would be too awkward for him to
lie; whereas I was fortunately not tied in that way. I was a fresh hand
and could say no without lying.

“But you will have to change your name,” said Mrs. Prest. “Juliana lives
out of the world as much as it is possible to live, but none the less
she has probably heard of Mr. Aspern’s editors; she perhaps possesses
what you have published.”

“I have thought of that,” I returned; and I drew out of my pocketbook a
visiting card, neatly engraved with a name that was not my own.

“You are very extravagant; you might have written it,” said my
companion.

“This looks more genuine.”

“Certainly, you are prepared to go far! But it will be awkward about
your letters; they won’t come to you in that mask.”

“My banker will take them in, and I will go every day to fetch them. It
will give me a little walk.”

“Shall you only depend upon that?” asked Mrs. Prest. “Aren’t you coming
to see me?”

“Oh, you will have left Venice, for the hot months, long before
there are any results. I am prepared to roast all summer--as well as
hereafter, perhaps you’ll say! Meanwhile, John Cumnor will bombard me
with letters addressed, in my feigned name, to the care of the padrona.”

“She will recognize his hand,” my companion suggested.

“On the envelope he can disguise it.”

“Well, you’re a precious pair! Doesn’t it occur to you that even if you
are able to say you are not Mr. Cumnor in person they may still suspect
you of being his emissary?”

“Certainly, and I see only one way to parry that.”

“And what may that be?”

I hesitated a moment. “To make love to the niece.”

“Ah,” cried Mrs. Prest, “wait till you see her!”



II


“I must work the garden--I must work the garden,” I said to myself, five
minutes later, as I waited, upstairs, in the long, dusky sala, where the
bare scagliola floor gleamed vaguely in a chink of the closed shutters.
The place was impressive but it looked cold and cautious. Mrs. Prest had
floated away, giving me a rendezvous at the end of half an hour by
some neighboring water steps; and I had been let into the house,
after pulling the rusty bell wire, by a little red-headed, white-faced
maidservant, who was very young and not ugly and wore clicking pattens
and a shawl in the fashion of a hood. She had not contented herself
with opening the door from above by the usual arrangement of a creaking
pulley, though she had looked down at me first from an upper window,
dropping the inevitable challenge which in Italy precedes the hospitable
act. As a general thing I was irritated by this survival of medieval
manners, though as I liked the old I suppose I ought to have liked it;
but I was so determined to be genial that I took my false card out of
my pocket and held it up to her, smiling as if it were a magic token. It
had the effect of one indeed, for it brought her, as I say, all the way
down. I begged her to hand it to her mistress, having first written
on it in Italian the words, “Could you very kindly see a gentleman,
an American, for a moment?” The little maid was not hostile, and I
reflected that even that was perhaps something gained. She colored,
she smiled and looked both frightened and pleased. I could see that my
arrival was a great affair, that visits were rare in that house, and
that she was a person who would have liked a sociable place. When she
pushed forward the heavy door behind me I felt that I had a foot in the
citadel. She pattered across the damp, stony lower hall and I followed
her up the high staircase--stonier still, as it seemed--without an
invitation. I think she had meant I should wait for her below, but such
was not my idea, and I took up my station in the sala. She flitted, at
the far end of it, into impenetrable regions, and I looked at the place
with my heart beating as I had known it to do in the dentist’s parlor.
It was gloomy and stately, but it owed its character almost entirely
to its noble shape and to the fine architectural doors--as high as
the doors of houses--which, leading into the various rooms, repeated
themselves on either side at intervals. They were surmounted with old
faded painted escutcheons, and here and there, in the spaces between
them, brown pictures, which I perceived to be bad, in battered frames,
were suspended. With the exception of several straw-bottomed chairs with
their backs to the wall, the grand obscure vista contained nothing else
to minister to effect. It was evidently never used save as a passage,
and little even as that. I may add that by the time the door opened
again through which the maidservant had escaped, my eyes had grown used
to the want of light.

I had not meant by my private ejaculation that I must myself cultivate
the soil of the tangled enclosure which lay beneath the windows, but the
lady who came toward me from the distance over the hard, shining floor
might have supposed as much from the way in which, as I went rapidly to
meet her, I exclaimed, taking care to speak Italian: “The garden, the
garden--do me the pleasure to tell me if it’s yours!”

She stopped short, looking at me with wonder; and then, “Nothing here is
mine,” she answered in English, coldly and sadly.

“Oh, you are English; how delightful!” I remarked, ingenuously. “But
surely the garden belongs to the house?”

“Yes, but the house doesn’t belong to me.” She was a long, lean, pale
person, habited apparently in a dull-colored dressing gown, and she
spoke with a kind of mild literalness. She did not ask me to sit down,
any more than years before (if she were the niece) she had asked Mrs.
Prest, and we stood face to face in the empty pompous hall.

“Well then, would you kindly tell me to whom I must address myself? I’m
afraid you’ll think me odiously intrusive, but you know I MUST have a
garden--upon my honor I must!”

Her face was not young, but it was simple; it was not fresh, but it was
mild. She had large eyes which were not bright, and a great deal of hair
which was not “dressed,” and long fine hands which were--possibly--not
clean. She clasped these members almost convulsively as, with a
confused, alarmed look, she broke out, “Oh, don’t take it away from us;
we like it ourselves!”

“You have the use of it then?”

“Oh, yes. If it wasn’t for that!” And she gave a shy, melancholy smile.

“Isn’t it a luxury, precisely? That’s why, intending to be in Venice
some weeks, possibly all summer, and having some literary work, some
reading and writing to do, so that I must be quiet, and yet if possible
a great deal in the open air--that’s why I have felt that a garden
is really indispensable. I appeal to your own experience,” I went on,
smiling. “Now can’t I look at yours?”

“I don’t know, I don’t understand,” the poor woman murmured, planted
there and letting her embarrassed eyes wander all over my strangeness.

“I mean only from one of those windows--such grand ones as you have
here--if you will let me open the shutters.” And I walked toward the
back of the house. When I had advanced halfway I stopped and waited, as
if I took it for granted she would accompany me. I had been of necessity
very abrupt, but I strove at the same time to give her the impression of
extreme courtesy. “I have been looking at furnished rooms all over
the place, and it seems impossible to find any with a garden attached.
Naturally in a place like Venice gardens are rare. It’s absurd if you
like, for a man, but I can’t live without flowers.”

“There are none to speak of down there.” She came nearer to me, as if,
though she mistrusted me, I had drawn her by an invisible thread. I went
on again, and she continued as she followed me: “We have a few, but they
are very common. It costs too much to cultivate them; one has to have a
man.”

“Why shouldn’t I be the man?” I asked. “I’ll work without wages; or
rather I’ll put in a gardener. You shall have the sweetest flowers in
Venice.”

She protested at this, with a queer little sigh which might also have
been a gush of rapture at the picture I presented. Then she observed,
“We don’t know you--we don’t know you.”

“You know me as much as I know you: that is much more, because you know
my name. And if you are English I am almost a countryman.”

“We are not English,” said my companion, watching me helplessly while I
threw open the shutters of one of the divisions of the wide high window.

“You speak the language so beautifully: might I ask what you are?” Seen
from above the garden was certainly shabby; but I perceived at a glance
that it had great capabilities. She made no rejoinder, she was so lost
in staring at me, and I exclaimed, “You don’t mean to say you are also
by chance American?”

“I don’t know; we used to be.”

“Used to be? Surely you haven’t changed?”

“It’s so many years ago--we are nothing.”

“So many years that you have been living here? Well, I don’t wonder at
that; it’s a grand old house. I suppose you all use the garden,” I went
on, “but I assure you I shouldn’t be in your way. I would be very quiet
and stay in one corner.”

“We all use it?” she repeated after me, vaguely, not coming close to
the window but looking at my shoes. She appeared to think me capable of
throwing her out.

“I mean all your family, as many as you are.”

“There is only one other; she is very old--she never goes down.”

“Only one other, in all this great house!” I feigned to be not only
amazed but almost scandalized. “Dear lady, you must have space then to
spare!”

“To spare?” she repeated, in the same dazed way.

“Why, you surely don’t live (two quiet women--I see YOU are quiet,
at any rate) in fifty rooms!” Then with a burst of hope and cheer I
demanded: “Couldn’t you let me two or three? That would set me up!”

I had not struck the note that translated my purpose, and I need
not reproduce the whole of the tune I played. I ended by making my
interlocutress believe that I was an honorable person, though of course
I did not even attempt to persuade her that I was not an eccentric one.
I repeated that I had studies to pursue; that I wanted quiet; that I
delighted in a garden and had vainly sought one up and down the city;
that I would undertake that before another month was over the dear old
house should be smothered in flowers. I think it was the flowers that
won my suit, for I afterward found that Miss Tita (for such the name of
this high tremulous spinster proved somewhat incongruously to be) had an
insatiable appetite for them. When I speak of my suit as won I mean that
before I left her she had promised that she would refer the question to
her aunt. I inquired who her aunt might be and she answered, “Why, Miss
Bordereau!” with an air of surprise, as if I might have been expected to
know. There were contradictions like this in Tita Bordereau which, as I
observed later, contributed to make her an odd and affecting person.
It was the study of the two ladies to live so that the world should not
touch them, and yet they had never altogether accepted the idea that it
never heard of them. In Tita at any rate a grateful susceptibility to
human contact had not died out, and contact of a limited order there
would be if I should come to live in the house.

“We have never done anything of the sort; we have never had a lodger or
any kind of inmate.” So much as this she made a point of saying to me.
“We are very poor, we live very badly. The rooms are very bare--that you
might take; they have nothing in them. I don’t know how you would sleep,
how you would eat.”

“With your permission, I could easily put in a bed and a few tables and
chairs. C’est la moindre des choses and the affair of an hour or two.
I know a little man from whom I can hire what I should want for a few
months, for a trifle, and my gondolier can bring the things round in his
boat. Of course in this great house you must have a second kitchen, and
my servant, who is a wonderfully handy fellow” (this personage was an
evocation of the moment), “can easily cook me a chop there. My tastes
and habits are of the simplest; I live on flowers!” And then I ventured
to add that if they were very poor it was all the more reason they
should let their rooms. They were bad economists--I had never heard of
such a waste of material.

I saw in a moment that the good lady had never before been spoken to
in that way, with a kind of humorous firmness which did not exclude
sympathy but was on the contrary founded on it. She might easily have
told me that my sympathy was impertinent, but this by good fortune
did not occur to her. I left her with the understanding that she would
consider the matter with her aunt and that I might come back the next
day for their decision.

“The aunt will refuse; she will think the whole proceeding very louche!”
 Mrs. Prest declared shortly after this, when I had resumed my place in
her gondola. She had put the idea into my head and now (so little are
women to be counted on) she appeared to take a despondent view of it.
Her pessimism provoked me and I pretended to have the best hopes; I
went so far as to say that I had a distinct presentiment that I should
succeed. Upon this Mrs. Prest broke out, “Oh, I see what’s in your head!
You fancy you have made such an impression in a quarter of an hour that
she is dying for you to come and can be depended upon to bring the old
one round. If you do get in you’ll count it as a triumph.”

I did count it as a triumph, but only for the editor (in the last
analysis), not for the man, who had not the tradition of personal
conquest. When I went back on the morrow the little maidservant
conducted me straight through the long sala (it opened there as before
in perfect perspective and was lighter now, which I thought a good
omen) into the apartment from which the recipient of my former visit had
emerged on that occasion. It was a large shabby parlor, with a fine
old painted ceiling and a strange figure sitting alone at one of the
windows. They come back to me now almost with the palpitation they
caused, the successive feelings that accompanied my consciousness that
as the door of the room closed behind me I was really face to face with
the Juliana of some of Aspern’s most exquisite and most renowned lyrics.
I grew used to her afterward, though never completely; but as she sat
there before me my heart beat as fast as if the miracle of resurrection
had taken place for my benefit. Her presence seemed somehow to contain
his, and I felt nearer to him at that first moment of seeing her than
I ever had been before or ever have been since. Yes, I remember my
emotions in their order, even including a curious little tremor that
took me when I saw that the niece was not there. With her, the day
before, I had become sufficiently familiar, but it almost exceeded my
courage (much as I had longed for the event) to be left alone with
such a terrible relic as the aunt. She was too strange, too literally
resurgent. Then came a check, with the perception that we were not
really face to face, inasmuch as she had over her eyes a horrible
green shade which, for her, served almost as a mask. I believed for the
instant that she had put it on expressly, so that from underneath it she
might scrutinize me without being scrutinized herself. At the same
time it increased the presumption that there was a ghastly death’s-head
lurking behind it. The divine Juliana as a grinning skull--the vision
hung there until it passed. Then it came to me that she WAS tremendously
old--so old that death might take her at any moment, before I had time
to get what I wanted from her. The next thought was a correction to
that; it lighted up the situation. She would die next week, she would
die tomorrow--then I could seize her papers. Meanwhile she sat there
neither moving nor speaking. She was very small and shrunken, bent
forward, with her hands in her lap. She was dressed in black, and her
head was wrapped in a piece of old black lace which showed no hair.

My emotion keeping me silent she spoke first, and the remark she made
was exactly the most unexpected.



III


“Our house is very far from the center, but the little canal is very
comme il faut.”

“It’s the sweetest corner of Venice and I can imagine nothing more
charming,” I hastened to reply. The old lady’s voice was very thin and
weak, but it had an agreeable, cultivated murmur, and there was wonder
in the thought that that individual note had been in Jeffrey Aspern’s
ear.

“Please to sit down there. I hear very well,” she said quietly, as if
perhaps I had been shouting at her; and the chair she pointed to was
at a certain distance. I took possession of it, telling her that I
was perfectly aware that I had intruded, that I had not been properly
introduced and could only throw myself upon her indulgence. Perhaps the
other lady, the one I had had the honor of seeing the day before, would
have explained to her about the garden. That was literally what had
given me courage to take a step so unconventional. I had fallen in love
at sight with the whole place (she herself probably was so used to
it that she did not know the impression it was capable of making on a
stranger), and I had felt it was really a case to risk something. Was
her own kindness in receiving me a sign that I was not wholly out in
my calculation? It would render me extremely happy to think so. I could
give her my word of honor that I was a most respectable, inoffensive
person and that as an inmate they would be barely conscious of my
existence. I would conform to any regulations, any restrictions if they
would only let me enjoy the garden. Moreover I should be delighted to
give her references, guarantees; they would be of the very best, both in
Venice and in England as well as in America.

She listened to me in perfect stillness and I felt that she was looking
at me with great attention, though I could see only the lower part of
her bleached and shriveled face. Independently of the refining process
of old age it had a delicacy which once must have been great. She had
been very fair, she had had a wonderful complexion. She was silent a
little after I had ceased speaking; then she inquired, “If you are so
fond of a garden why don’t you go to terra firma, where there are so
many far better than this?”

“Oh, it’s the combination!” I answered, smiling; and then, with rather a
flight of fancy, “It’s the idea of a garden in the middle of the sea.”

“It’s not in the middle of the sea; you can’t see the water.”

I stared a moment, wondering whether she wished to convict me of fraud.
“Can’t see the water? Why, dear madam, I can come up to the very gate in
my boat.”

She appeared inconsequent, for she said vaguely in reply to this, “Yes,
if you have got a boat. I haven’t any; it’s many years since I have been
in one of the gondolas.” She uttered these words as if the gondolas were
a curious faraway craft which she knew only by hearsay.

“Let me assure you of the pleasure with which I would put mine at your
service!” I exclaimed. I had scarcely said this, however, before I
became aware that the speech was in questionable taste and might also do
me the injury of making me appear too eager, too possessed of a hidden
motive. But the old woman remained impenetrable and her attitude
bothered me by suggesting that she had a fuller vision of me than I
had of her. She gave me no thanks for my somewhat extravagant offer
but remarked that the lady I had seen the day before was her niece;
she would presently come in. She had asked her to stay away a little
on purpose, because she herself wished to see me at first alone. She
relapsed into silence, and I asked myself why she had judged this
necessary and what was coming yet; also whether I might venture on some
judicious remark in praise of her companion. I went so far as to say
that I should be delighted to see her again: she had been so very
courteous to me, considering how odd she must have thought me--a
declaration which drew from Miss Bordereau another of her whimsical
speeches.

“She has very good manners; I bred her up myself!” I was on the point
of saying that that accounted for the easy grace of the niece, but I
arrested myself in time, and the next moment the old woman went on:
“I don’t care who you may be--I don’t want to know; it signifies very
little today.” This had all the air of being a formula of dismissal, as
if her next words would be that I might take myself off now that she
had had the amusement of looking on the face of such a monster of
indiscretion. Therefore I was all the more surprised when she added,
with her soft, venerable quaver, “You may have as many rooms as you
like--if you will pay a good deal of money.”

I hesitated but for a single instant, long enough to ask myself what she
meant in particular by this condition. First it struck me that she must
have really a large sum in her mind; then I reasoned quickly that
her idea of a large sum would probably not correspond to my own. My
deliberation, I think, was not so visible as to diminish the promptitude
with which I replied, “I will pay with pleasure and of course in advance
whatever you may think is proper to ask me.”

“Well then, a thousand francs a month,” she rejoined instantly, while
her baffling green shade continued to cover her attitude.

The figure, as they say, was startling and my logic had been at fault.
The sum she had mentioned was, by the Venetian measure of such matters,
exceedingly large; there was many an old palace in an out-of-the-way
corner that I might on such terms have enjoyed by the year. But so far
as my small means allowed I was prepared to spend money, and my decision
was quickly taken. I would pay her with a smiling face what she asked,
but in that case I would give myself the compensation of extracting the
papers from her for nothing. Moreover if she had asked five times
as much I should have risen to the occasion; so odious would it have
appeared to me to stand chaffering with Aspern’s Juliana. It was queer
enough to have a question of money with her at all. I assured her that
her views perfectly met my own and that on the morrow I should have the
pleasure of putting three months’ rent into her hand. She received this
announcement with serenity and with no apparent sense that after all
it would be becoming of her to say that I ought to see the rooms first.
This did not occur to her and indeed her serenity was mainly what I
wanted. Our little bargain was just concluded when the door opened and
the younger lady appeared on the threshold. As soon as Miss Bordereau
saw her niece she cried out almost gaily, “He will give three
thousand--three thousand tomorrow!”

Miss Tita stood still, with her patient eyes turning from one of us to
the other; then she inquired, scarcely above her breath, “Do you mean
francs?”

“Did you mean francs or dollars?” the old woman asked of me at this.

“I think francs were what you said,” I answered, smiling.

“That is very good,” said Miss Tita, as if she had become conscious that
her own question might have looked overreaching.

“What do YOU know? You are ignorant,” Miss Bordereau remarked; not with
acerbity but with a strange, soft coldness.

“Yes, of money--certainly of money!” Miss Tita hastened to exclaim.

“I am sure you have your own branches of knowledge,” I took the liberty
of saying, genially. There was something painful to me, somehow, in the
turn the conversation had taken, in the discussion of the rent.

“She had a very good education when she was young. I looked into that
myself,” said Miss Bordereau. Then she added, “But she has learned
nothing since.”

“I have always been with you,” Miss Tita rejoined very mildly, and
evidently with no intention of making an epigram.

“Yes, but for that!” her aunt declared with more satirical force. She
evidently meant that but for this her niece would never have got on
at all; the point of the observation however being lost on Miss Tita,
though she blushed at hearing her history revealed to a stranger. Miss
Bordereau went on, addressing herself to me: “And what time will you
come tomorrow with the money?”

“The sooner the better. If it suits you I will come at noon.”

“I am always here but I have my hours,” said the old woman, as if her
convenience were not to be taken for granted.

“You mean the times when you receive?”

“I never receive. But I will see you at noon, when you come with the
money.”

“Very good, I shall be punctual;” and I added, “May I shake hands with
you, on our contract?” I thought there ought to be some little form, it
would make me really feel easier, for I foresaw that there would be
no other. Besides, though Miss Bordereau could not today be called
personally attractive and there was something even in her wasted
antiquity that bade one stand at one’s distance, I felt an irresistible
desire to hold in my own for a moment the hand that Jeffrey Aspern had
pressed.

For a minute she made no answer, and I saw that my proposal failed to
meet with her approbation. She indulged in no movement of withdrawal,
which I half-expected; she only said coldly, “I belong to a time when
that was not the custom.”

I felt rather snubbed but I exclaimed good humoredly to Miss Tita, “Oh,
you will do as well!” I shook hands with her while she replied, with a
small flutter, “Yes, yes, to show it’s all arranged!”

“Shall you bring the money in gold?” Miss Bordereau demanded, as I was
turning to the door.

I looked at her for a moment. “Aren’t you a little afraid, after all, of
keeping such a sum as that in the house?” It was not that I was annoyed
at her avidity but I was really struck with the disparity between such a
treasure and such scanty means of guarding it.

“Whom should I be afraid of if I am not afraid of you?” she asked with
her shrunken grimness.

“Ah well,” said I, laughing, “I shall be in point of fact a protector
and I will bring gold if you prefer.”

“Thank you,” the old woman returned with dignity and with an inclination
of her head which evidently signified that I might depart. I passed out
of the room, reflecting that it would not be easy to circumvent her. As
I stood in the sala again I saw that Miss Tita had followed me, and I
supposed that as her aunt had neglected to suggest that I should take a
look at my quarters it was her purpose to repair the omission. But she
made no such suggestion; she only stood there with a dim, though not a
languid smile, and with an effect of irresponsible, incompetent youth
which was almost comically at variance with the faded facts of her
person. She was not infirm, like her aunt, but she struck me as still
more helpless, because her inefficiency was spiritual, which was not the
case with Miss Bordereau’s. I waited to see if she would offer to
show me the rest of the house, but I did not precipitate the question,
inasmuch as my plan was from this moment to spend as much of my time as
possible in her society. I only observed at the end of a minute:

“I have had better fortune than I hoped. It was very kind of her to see
me. Perhaps you said a good word for me.”

“It was the idea of the money,” said Miss Tita.

“And did you suggest that?”

“I told her that you would perhaps give a good deal.”

“What made you think that?”

“I told her I thought you were rich.”

“And what put that idea into your head?”

“I don’t know; the way you talked.”

“Dear me, I must talk differently now,” I declared. “I’m sorry to say
it’s not the case.”

“Well,” said Miss Tita, “I think that in Venice the forestieri, in
general, often give a great deal for something that after all isn’t
much.” She appeared to make this remark with a comforting intention,
to wish to remind me that if I had been extravagant I was not really
foolishly singular. We walked together along the sala, and as I took its
magnificent measure I said to her that I was afraid it would not form
a part of my quartiere. Were my rooms by chance to be among those that
opened into it? “Not if you go above, on the second floor,” she answered
with a little startled air, as if she had rather taken for granted I
would know my proper place.

“And I infer that that’s where your aunt would like me to be.”

“She said your apartments ought to be very distinct.”

“That certainly would be best.” And I listened with respect while she
told me that up above I was free to take whatever I liked; that there
was another staircase, but only from the floor on which we stood, and
that to pass from it to the garden-story or to come up to my lodging I
should have in effect to cross the great hall. This was an immense
point gained; I foresaw that it would constitute my whole leverage in
my relations with the two ladies. When I asked Miss Tita how I was to
manage at present to find my way up she replied with an access of that
sociable shyness which constantly marked her manner.

“Perhaps you can’t. I don’t see--unless I should go with you.” She
evidently had not thought of this before.

We ascended to the upper floor and visited a long succession of empty
rooms. The best of them looked over the garden; some of the others had a
view of the blue lagoon, above the opposite rough-tiled housetops. They
were all dusty and even a little disfigured with long neglect, but I saw
that by spending a few hundred francs I should be able to convert three
or four of them into a convenient habitation. My experiment was turning
out costly, yet now that I had all but taken possession I ceased to
allow this to trouble me. I mentioned to my companion a few of the
things that I should put in, but she replied rather more precipitately
than usual that I might do exactly what I liked; she seemed to wish to
notify me that the Misses Bordereau would take no overt interest in my
proceedings. I guessed that her aunt had instructed her to adopt this
tone, and I may as well say now that I came afterward to distinguish
perfectly (as I believed) between the speeches she made on her own
responsibility and those the old lady imposed upon her. She took
no notice of the unswept condition of the rooms and indulged in no
explanations nor apologies. I said to myself that this was a sign that
Juliana and her niece (disenchanting idea!) were untidy persons, with a
low Italian standard; but I afterward recognized that a lodger who had
forced an entrance had no locus standi as a critic. We looked out of a
good many windows, for there was nothing within the rooms to look at,
and still I wanted to linger. I asked her what several different objects
in the prospect might be, but in no case did she appear to know. She was
evidently not familiar with the view--it was as if she had not looked
at it for years--and I presently saw that she was too preoccupied with
something else to pretend to care for it. Suddenly she said--the remark
was not suggested:

“I don’t know whether it will make any difference to you, but the money
is for me.”

“The money?”

“The money you are going to bring.”

“Why, you’ll make me wish to stay here two or three years.” I spoke as
benevolently as possible, though it had begun to act on my nerves that
with these women so associated with Aspern the pecuniary question should
constantly come back.

“That would be very good for me,” she replied, smiling.

“You put me on my honor!”

She looked as if she failed to understand this, but went on: “She wants
me to have more. She thinks she is going to die.”

“Ah, not soon, I hope!” I exclaimed with genuine feeling. I had
perfectly considered the possibility that she would destroy her papers
on the day she should feel her end really approach. I believed that she
would cling to them till then, and I think I had an idea that she
read Aspern’s letters over every night or at least pressed them to her
withered lips. I would have given a good deal to have a glimpse of the
latter spectacle. I asked Miss Tita if the old lady were seriously ill,
and she replied that she was only very tired--she had lived so very,
very long. That was what she said herself--she wanted to die for a
change. Besides, all her friends were dead long ago; either they ought
to have remained or she ought to have gone. That was another thing her
aunt often said--she was not at all content.

“But people don’t die when they like, do they?” Miss Tita inquired. I
took the liberty of asking why, if there was actually enough money to
maintain both of them, there would not be more than enough in case of
her being left alone. She considered this difficult problem a moment
and then she said, “Oh, well, you know, she takes care of me. She thinks
that when I’m alone I shall be a great fool, I shall not know how to
manage.”

“I should have supposed that you took care of her. I’m afraid she is
very proud.”

“Why, have you discovered that already?” Miss Tita cried with the
glimmer of an illumination in her face.

“I was shut up with her there for a considerable time, and she struck
me, she interested me extremely. It didn’t take me long to make my
discovery. She won’t have much to say to me while I’m here.”

“No, I don’t think she will,” my companion averred.

“Do you suppose she has some suspicion of me?”

Miss Tita’s honest eyes gave me no sign that I had touched a mark. “I
shouldn’t think so--letting you in after all so easily.”

“Oh, so easily! she has covered her risk. But where is it that one could
take an advantage of her?”

“I oughtn’t to tell you if I knew, ought I?” And Miss Tita added, before
I had time to reply to this, smiling dolefully, “Do you think we have
any weak points?”

“That’s exactly what I’m asking. You would only have to mention them for
me to respect them religiously.”

She looked at me, at this, with that air of timid but candid and even
gratified curiosity with which she had confronted me from the first; and
then she said, “There is nothing to tell. We are terribly quiet. I don’t
know how the days pass. We have no life.”

“I wish I might think that I should bring you a little.”

“Oh, we know what we want,” she went on. “It’s all right.”

There were various things I desired to ask her: how in the world they
did live; whether they had any friends or visitors, any relations in
America or in other countries. But I judged such an inquiry would
be premature; I must leave it to a later chance. “Well, don’t YOU be
proud,” I contented myself with saying. “Don’t hide from me altogether.”

“Oh, I must stay with my aunt,” she returned, without looking at me.
And at the same moment, abruptly, without any ceremony of parting, she
quitted me and disappeared, leaving me to make my own way downstairs. I
remained a while longer, wandering about the bright desert (the sun was
pouring in) of the old house, thinking the situation over on the
spot. Not even the pattering little serva came to look after me, and I
reflected that after all this treatment showed confidence.



IV


Perhaps it did, but all the same, six weeks later, toward the middle of
June, the moment when Mrs. Prest undertook her annual migration, I had
made no measurable advance. I was obliged to confess to her that I had
no results to speak of. My first step had been unexpectedly rapid, but
there was no appearance that it would be followed by a second. I was
a thousand miles from taking tea with my hostesses--that privilege
of which, as I reminded Mrs. Prest, we both had had a vision. She
reproached me with wanting boldness, and I answered that even to be bold
you must have an opportunity: you may push on through a breach but
you can’t batter down a dead wall. She answered that the breach I had
already made was big enough to admit an army and accused me of wasting
precious hours in whimpering in her salon when I ought to have been
carrying on the struggle in the field. It is true that I went to see her
very often, on the theory that it would console me (I freely expressed
my discouragement) for my want of success on my own premises. But I
began to perceive that it did not console me to be perpetually chaffed
for my scruples, especially when I was really so vigilant; and I was
rather glad when my derisive friend closed her house for the summer. She
had expected to gather amusement from the drama of my intercourse with
the Misses Bordereau, and she was disappointed that the intercourse, and
consequently the drama, had not come off. “They’ll lead you on to your
ruin,” she said before she left Venice. “They’ll get all your money
without showing you a scrap.” I think I settled down to my business with
more concentration after she had gone away.

It was a fact that up to that time I had not, save on a single brief
occasion, had even a moment’s contact with my queer hostesses. The
exception had occurred when I carried them according to my promise the
terrible three thousand francs. Then I found Miss Tita waiting for me in
the hall, and she took the money from my hand so that I did not see
her aunt. The old lady had promised to receive me, but she apparently
thought nothing of breaking that vow. The money was contained in a bag
of chamois leather, of respectable dimensions, which my banker had given
me, and Miss Tita had to make a big fist to receive it. This she did
with extreme solemnity, though I tried to treat the affair a little as a
joke. It was in no jocular strain, yet it was with simplicity, that she
inquired, weighing the money in her two palms: “Don’t you think it’s
too much?” To which I replied that that would depend upon the amount of
pleasure I should get for it. Hereupon she turned away from me quickly,
as she had done the day before, murmuring in a tone different from any
she had used hitherto: “Oh, pleasure, pleasure--there’s no pleasure in
this house!”

After this, for a long time, I never saw her, and I wondered that the
common chances of the day should not have helped us to meet. It could
only be evident that she was immensely on her guard against them; and in
addition to this the house was so big that for each other we were lost
in it. I used to look out for her hopefully as I crossed the sala in my
comings and goings, but I was not rewarded with a glimpse of the tail of
her dress. It was as if she never peeped out of her aunt’s apartment. I
used to wonder what she did there week after week and year after year.
I had never encountered such a violent parti pris of seclusion; it was
more than keeping quiet--it was like hunted creatures feigning death.
The two ladies appeared to have no visitors whatever and no sort of
contact with the world. I judged at least that people could not have
come to the house and that Miss Tita could not have gone out without my
having some observation of it. I did what I disliked myself for doing
(reflecting that it was only once in a way): I questioned my servant
about their habits and let him divine that I should be interested in any
information he could pick up. But he picked up amazingly little for a
knowing Venetian: it must be added that where there is a perpetual fast
there are very few crumbs on the floor. His cleverness in other ways was
sufficient, if it was not quite all that I had attributed to him on
the occasion of my first interview with Miss Tita. He had helped my
gondolier to bring me round a boatload of furniture; and when these
articles had been carried to the top of the palace and distributed
according to our associated wisdom he organized my household with
such promptitude as was consistent with the fact that it was composed
exclusively of himself. He made me in short as comfortable as I could be
with my indifferent prospects. I should have been glad if he had fallen
in love with Miss Bordereau’s maid or, failing this, had taken her
in aversion; either event might have brought about some kind of
catastrophe, and a catastrophe might have led to some parley. It was
my idea that she would have been sociable, and I myself on various
occasions saw her flit to and fro on domestic errands, so that I was
sure she was accessible. But I tasted of no gossip from that fountain,
and I afterward learned that Pasquale’s affections were fixed upon an
object that made him heedless of other women. This was a young lady with
a powdered face, a yellow cotton gown, and much leisure, who used often
to come to see him. She practiced, at her convenience, the art of a
stringer of beads (these ornaments are made in Venice, in profusion; she
had her pocket full of them, and I used to find them on the floor of my
apartment), and kept an eye on the maiden in the house. It was not for
me of course to make the domestics tattle, and I never said a word to
Miss Bordereau’s cook.

It seemed to me a proof of the old lady’s determination to have nothing
to do with me that she should never have sent me a receipt for my three
months’ rent. For some days I looked out for it and then, when I had
given it up, I wasted a good deal of time in wondering what her reason
had been for neglecting so indispensable and familiar a form. At first I
was tempted to send her a reminder, after which I relinquished the idea
(against my judgment as to what was right in the particular case), on
the general ground of wishing to keep quiet. If Miss Bordereau
suspected me of ulterior aims she would suspect me less if I should
be businesslike, and yet I consented not to be so. It was possible she
intended her omission as an impertinence, a visible irony, to show
how she could overreach people who attempted to overreach her. On that
hypothesis it was well to let her see that one did not notice her little
tricks. The real reading of the matter, I afterward perceived, was
simply the poor old woman’s desire to emphasize the fact that I was in
the enjoyment of a favor as rigidly limited as it had been liberally
bestowed. She had given me part of her house, and now she would not give
me even a morsel of paper with her name on it. Let me say that even
at first this did not make me too miserable, for the whole episode was
essentially delightful to me. I foresaw that I should have a summer
after my own literary heart, and the sense of holding my opportunity
was much greater than the sense of losing it. There could be no Venetian
business without patience, and since I adored the place I was much more
in the spirit of it for having laid in a large provision. That spirit
kept me perpetual company and seemed to look out at me from the revived
immortal face--in which all his genius shone--of the great poet who was
my prompter. I had invoked him and he had come; he hovered before me
half the time; it was as if his bright ghost had returned to earth to
tell me that he regarded the affair as his own no less than mine and
that we should see it fraternally, cheerfully to a conclusion. It was
as if he had said, “Poor dear, be easy with her; she has some natural
prejudices; only give her time. Strange as it may appear to you she was
very attractive in 1820. Meanwhile are we not in Venice together, and
what better place is there for the meeting of dear friends? See how it
glows with the advancing summer; how the sky and the sea and the rosy
air and the marble of the palaces all shimmer and melt together.” My
eccentric private errand became a part of the general romance and the
general glory--I felt even a mystic companionship, a moral fraternity
with all those who in the past had been in the service of art. They
had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? That
element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written, and I was
only bringing it to the light.

I lingered in the sala when I went to and fro; I used to watch--as long
as I thought decent--the door that led to Miss Bordereau’s part of the
house. A person observing me might have supposed I was trying to cast a
spell upon it or attempting some odd experiment in hypnotism. But I was
only praying it would open or thinking what treasure probably lurked
behind it. I hold it singular, as I look back, that I should never
have doubted for a moment that the sacred relics were there; never have
failed to feel a certain joy at being under the same roof with them.
After all they were under my hand--they had not escaped me yet; and they
made my life continuous, in a fashion, with the illustrious life they
had touched at the other end. I lost myself in this satisfaction to the
point of assuming--in my quiet extravagance--that poor Miss Tita also
went back, went back, as I used to phrase it. She did indeed, the gentle
spinster, but not quite so far as Jeffrey Aspern, who was simply
hearsay to her, quite as he was to me. Only she had lived for years with
Juliana, she had seen and handled the papers and (even though she was
stupid) some esoteric knowledge had rubbed off on her. That was what the
old woman represented--esoteric knowledge; and this was the idea with
which my editorial heart used to thrill. It literally beat faster often,
of an evening, when I had been out, as I stopped with my candle in the
re-echoing hall on my way up to bed. It was as if at such a moment as
that, in the stillness, after the long contradiction of the day, Miss
Bordereau’s secrets were in the air, the wonder of her survival more
palpable. These were the acute impressions. I had them in another form,
with more of a certain sort of reciprocity, during the hours that I sat
in the garden looking up over the top of my book at the closed windows
of my hostess. In these windows no sign of life ever appeared; it was
as if, for fear of my catching a glimpse of them, the two ladies
passed their days in the dark. But this only proved to me that they had
something to conceal; which was what I had wished to demonstrate. Their
motionless shutters became as expressive as eyes consciously closed,
and I took comfort in thinking that at all events through invisible
themselves they saw me between the lashes.

I made a point of spending as much time as possible in the garden, to
justify the picture I had originally given of my horticultural passion.
And I not only spent time, but (hang it! as I said) I spent money. As
soon as I had got my rooms arranged and could give the proper thought to
the matter I surveyed the place with a clever expert and made terms for
having it put in order. I was sorry to do this, for personally I liked
it better as it was, with its weeds and its wild, rough tangle, its
sweet, characteristic Venetian shabbiness. I had to be consistent, to
keep my promise that I would smother the house in flowers. Moreover
I formed this graceful project that by flowers I would make my way--I
would succeed by big nosegays. I would batter the old women with
lilies--I would bombard their citadel with roses. Their door would have
to yield to the pressure when a mountain of carnations should be piled
up against it. The place in truth had been brutally neglected. The
Venetian capacity for dawdling is of the largest, and for a good
many days unlimited litter was all my gardener had to show for his
ministrations. There was a great digging of holes and carting about
of earth, and after a while I grew so impatient that I had thoughts of
sending for my bouquets to the nearest stand. But I reflected that the
ladies would see through the chinks of their shutters that they must
have been bought and might make up their minds from this that I was a
humbug. So I composed myself and finally, though the delay was long,
perceived some appearances of bloom. This encouraged me, and I waited
serenely enough till they multiplied. Meanwhile the real summer days
arrived and began to pass, and as I look back upon them they seem to me
almost the happiest of my life. I took more and more care to be in the
garden whenever it was not too hot. I had an arbor arranged and a
low table and an armchair put into it; and I carried out books and
portfolios (I had always some business of writing in hand), and worked
and waited and mused and hoped, while the golden hours elapsed and the
plants drank in the light and the inscrutable old palace turned pale and
then, as the day waned, began to flush in it and my papers rustled in
the wandering breeze of the Adriatic.

Considering how little satisfaction I got from it at first it is
remarkable that I should not have grown more tired of wondering what
mystic rites of ennui the Misses Bordereau celebrated in their darkened
rooms; whether this had always been the tenor of their life and how in
previous years they had escaped elbowing their neighbors. It was clear
that they must have had other habits and other circumstances; that they
must once have been young or at least middle-aged. There was no end
to the questions it was possible to ask about them and no end to
the answers it was not possible to frame. I had known many of my
country-people in Europe and was familiar with the strange ways they
were liable to take up there; but the Misses Bordereau formed altogether
a new type of the American absentee. Indeed it was plain that the
American name had ceased to have any application to them--I had seen
this in the ten minutes I spent in the old woman’s room. You could
never have said whence they came, from the appearance of either of them;
wherever it was they had long ago dropped the local accent and fashion.
There was nothing in them that one recognized, and putting the question
of speech aside they might have been Norwegians or Spaniards. Miss
Bordereau, after all, had been in Europe nearly three-quarters of a
century; it appeared by some verses addressed to her by Aspern on the
occasion of his own second absence from America--verses of which Cumnor
and I had after infinite conjecture established solidly enough the
date--that she was even then, as a girl of twenty, on the foreign side
of the sea. There was an implication in the poem (I hope not just for
the phrase) that he had come back for her sake. We had no real light
upon her circumstances at that moment, any more than we had upon her
origin, which we believed to be of the sort usually spoken of as modest.
Cumnor had a theory that she had been a governess in some family in
which the poet visited and that, in consequence of her position, there
was from the first something unavowed, or rather something positively
clandestine, in their relations. I on the other hand had hatched a
little romance according to which she was the daughter of an artist, a
painter or a sculptor, who had left the western world when the century
was fresh, to study in the ancient schools. It was essential to my
hypothesis that this amiable man should have lost his wife, should have
been poor and unsuccessful and should have had a second daughter, of a
disposition quite different from Juliana’s. It was also indispensable
that he should have been accompanied to Europe by these young ladies and
should have established himself there for the remainder of a struggling,
saddened life. There was a further implication that Miss Bordereau
had had in her youth a perverse and adventurous, albeit a generous and
fascinating character, and that she had passed through some singular
vicissitudes. By what passions had she been ravaged, by what sufferings
had she been blanched, what store of memories had she laid away for the
monotonous future?

I asked myself these things as I sat spinning theories about her in my
arbor and the bees droned in the flowers. It was incontestable that,
whether for right or for wrong, most readers of certain of Aspern’s
poems (poems not as ambiguous as the sonnets--scarcely more divine, I
think--of Shakespeare) had taken for granted that Juliana had not always
adhered to the steep footway of renunciation. There hovered about her
name a perfume of reckless passion, an intimation that she had not been
exactly as the respectable young person in general. Was this a sign that
her singer had betrayed her, had given her away, as we say nowadays, to
posterity? Certain it is that it would have been difficult to put one’s
finger on the passage in which her fair fame suffered an imputation.
Moreover was not any fame fair enough that was so sure of duration and
was associated with works immortal through their beauty? It was a
part of my idea that the young lady had had a foreign lover (and an
unedifying tragical rupture) before her meeting with Jeffrey Aspern.
She had lived with her father and sister in a queer old-fashioned,
expatriated, artistic Bohemia, in the days when the aesthetic was only
the academic and the painters who knew the best models for a contadina
and pifferaro wore peaked hats and long hair. It was a society less
furnished than the coteries of today (in its ignorance of the wonderful
chances, the opportunities of the early bird, with which its path was
strewn), with tatters of old stuff and fragments of old crockery; so
that Miss Bordereau appeared not to have picked up or have inherited
many objects of importance. There was no enviable bric-a-brac, with its
provoking legend of cheapness, in the room in which I had seen her. Such
a fact as that suggested bareness, but nonetheless it worked happily
into the sentimental interest I had always taken in the early movements
of my countrymen as visitors to Europe. When Americans went abroad in
1820 there was something romantic, almost heroic in it, as compared with
the perpetual ferryings of the present hour, when photography and other
conveniences have annihilated surprise. Miss Bordereau sailed with
her family on a tossing brig, in the days of long voyages and sharp
differences; she had her emotions on the top of yellow diligences,
passed the night at inns where she dreamed of travelers’ tales, and was
struck, on reaching the Eternal City, with the elegance of Roman pearls
and scarfs. There was something touching to me in all that, and my
imagination frequently went back to the period. If Miss Bordereau
carried it there of course Jeffrey Aspern at other times had done so a
great deal more. It was a much more important fact, if one were looking
at his genius critically, that he had lived in the days before the
general transfusion. It had happened to me to regret that he had known
Europe at all; I should have liked to see what he would have written
without that experience, by which he had incontestably been enriched.
But as his fate had ordered otherwise I went with him--I tried to judge
how the Old World would have struck him. It was not only there, however,
that I watched him; the relations he had entertained with the new had
even a livelier interest. His own country after all had had most of his
life, and his muse, as they said at that time, was essentially American.
That was originally what I had loved him for: that at a period when
our native land was nude and crude and provincial, when the famous
“atmosphere” it is supposed to lack was not even missed, when literature
was lonely there and art and form almost impossible, he had found means
to live and write like one of the first; to be free and general and not
at all afraid; to feel, understand, and express everything.



V


I was seldom at home in the evening, for when I attempted to occupy
myself in my apartments the lamplight brought in a swarm of noxious
insects, and it was too hot for closed windows. Accordingly I spent the
late hours either on the water (the moonlight of Venice is famous), or
in the splendid square which serves as a vast forecourt to the strange
old basilica of Saint Mark. I sat in front of Florian’s cafe, eating
ices, listening to music, talking with acquaintances: the traveler will
remember how the immense cluster of tables and little chairs stretches
like a promontory into the smooth lake of the Piazza. The whole place,
of a summer’s evening, under the stars and with all the lamps, all the
voices and light footsteps on marble (the only sounds of the arcades
that enclose it), is like an open-air saloon dedicated to cooling drinks
and to a still finer degustation--that of the exquisite impressions
received during the day. When I did not prefer to keep mine to myself
there was always a stray tourist, disencumbered of his Baedeker, to
discuss them with, or some domesticated painter rejoicing in the return
of the season of strong effects. The wonderful church, with its
low domes and bristling embroideries, the mystery of its mosaic and
sculpture, looking ghostly in the tempered gloom, and the sea breeze
passed between the twin columns of the Piazzetta, the lintels of a door
no longer guarded, as gently as if a rich curtain were swaying there. I
used sometimes on these occasions to think of the Misses Bordereau and
of the pity of their being shut up in apartments which in the Venetian
July even Venetian vastness did not prevent from being stuffy. Their
life seemed miles away from the life of the Piazza, and no doubt it was
really too late to make the austere Juliana change her habits. But
poor Miss Tita would have enjoyed one of Florian’s ices, I was sure;
sometimes I even had thoughts of carrying one home to her. Fortunately
my patience bore fruit, and I was not obliged to do anything so
ridiculous.

One evening about the middle of July I came in earlier than usual--I
forget what chance had led to this--and instead of going up to my
quarters made my way into the garden. The temperature was very high; it
was such a night as one would gladly have spent in the open air, and
I was in no hurry to go to bed. I had floated home in my gondola,
listening to the slow splash of the oar in the narrow dark canals, and
now the only thought that solicited me was the vague reflection that it
would be pleasant to recline at one’s length in the fragrant darkness
on a garden bench. The odor of the canal was doubtless at the bottom
of that aspiration and the breath of the garden, as I entered it, gave
consistency to my purpose. It was delicious--just such an air as must
have trembled with Romeo’s vows when he stood among the flowers and
raised his arms to his mistress’s balcony. I looked at the windows of
the palace to see if by chance the example of Verona (Verona being
not far off) had been followed; but everything was dim, as usual, and
everything was still. Juliana, on summer nights in her youth, might have
murmured down from open windows at Jeffrey Aspern, but Miss Tita was
not a poet’s mistress any more than I was a poet. This however did not
prevent my gratification from being great as I became aware on reaching
the end of the garden that Miss Tita was seated in my little bower. At
first I only made out an indistinct figure, not in the least counting on
such an overture from one of my hostesses; it even occurred to me that
some sentimental maidservant had stolen in to keep a tryst with her
sweetheart. I was going to turn away, not to frighten her, when the
figure rose to its height and I recognized Miss Bordereau’s niece. I
must do myself the justice to say that I did not wish to frighten her
either, and much as I had longed for some such accident I should have
been capable of retreating. It was as if I had laid a trap for her
by coming home earlier than usual and adding to that eccentricity
by creeping into the garden. As she rose she spoke to me, and then I
reflected that perhaps, secure in my almost inveterate absence, it was
her nightly practice to take a lonely airing. There was no trap, in
truth, because I had had no suspicion. At first I took for granted that
the words she uttered expressed discomfiture at my arrival; but as she
repeated them--I had not caught them clearly--I had the surprise of
hearing her say, “Oh, dear, I’m so very glad you’ve come!” She and her
aunt had in common the property of unexpected speeches. She came out of
the arbor almost as if she were going to throw herself into my arms.

I hasten to add that she did nothing of the kind; she did not even shake
hands with me. It was a gratification to her to see me and presently she
told me why--because she was nervous when she was out-of-doors at night
alone. The plants and bushes looked so strange in the dark, and there
were all sorts of queer sounds--she could not tell what they were--like
the noises of animals. She stood close to me, looking about her with an
air of greater security but without any demonstration of interest in me
as an individual. Then I guessed that nocturnal prowlings were not in
the least her habit, and I was also reminded (I had been struck with the
circumstance in talking with her before I took possession) that it was
impossible to overestimate her simplicity.

“You speak as if you were lost in the backwoods,” I said, laughing. “How
you manage to keep out of this charming place when you have only three
steps to take to get into it is more than I have yet been able to
discover. You hide away mighty well so long as I am on the premises, I
know; but I had a hope that you peeped out a little at other times. You
and your poor aunt are worse off than Carmelite nuns in their cells.
Should you mind telling me how you exist without air, without exercise,
without any sort of human contact? I don’t see how you carry on the
common business of life.”

She looked at me as if I were talking some strange tongue, and her
answer was so little of an answer that I was considerably irritated.
“We go to bed very early--earlier than you would believe.” I was on the
point of saying that this only deepened the mystery when she gave me
some relief by adding, “Before you came we were not so private. But I
never have been out at night.”

“Never in these fragrant alleys, blooming here under your nose?”

“Ah,” said Miss Tita, “they were never nice till now!” There was an
unmistakable reference in this and a flattering comparison, so that
it seemed to me I had gained a small advantage. As it would help me to
follow it up to establish a sort of grievance I asked her why, since
she thought my garden nice, she had never thanked me in any way for the
flowers I had been sending up in such quantities for the previous three
weeks. I had not been discouraged--there had been, as she would have
observed, a daily armful; but I had been brought up in the common forms
and a word of recognition now and then would have touched me in the
right place.

“Why I didn’t know they were for me!”

“They were for both of you. Why should I make a difference?”

Miss Tita reflected as if she might by thinking of a reason for that,
but she failed to produce one. Instead of this she asked abruptly, “Why
in the world do you want to know us?”

“I ought after all to make a difference,” I replied. “That question is
your aunt’s; it isn’t yours. You wouldn’t ask it if you hadn’t been put
up to it.”

“She didn’t tell me to ask you,” Miss Tita replied without confusion;
she was the oddest mixture of the shrinking and the direct.

“Well, she has often wondered about it herself and expressed her wonder
to you. She has insisted on it, so that she has put the idea into your
head that I am insufferably pushing. Upon my word I think I have
been very discreet. And how completely your aunt must have lost every
tradition of sociability, to see anything out of the way in the idea
that respectable intelligent people, living as we do under the same
roof, should occasionally exchange a remark! What could be more natural?
We are of the same country, and we have at least some of the same
tastes, since, like you, I am intensely fond of Venice.”

My interlocutress appeared incapable of grasping more than one clause
in any proposition, and she declared quickly, eagerly, as if she were
answering my whole speech: “I am not in the least fond of Venice. I
should like to go far away!”

“Has she always kept you back so?” I went on, to show her that I could
be as irrelevant as herself.

“She told me to come out tonight; she has told me very often,” said Miss
Tita. “It is I who wouldn’t come. I don’t like to leave her.”

“Is she too weak, is she failing?” I demanded, with more emotion, I
think, than I intended to show. I judged this by the way her eyes rested
upon me in the darkness. It embarrassed me a little, and to turn
the matter off I continued genially: “Do let us sit down together
comfortably somewhere, and you will tell me all about her.”

Miss Tita made no resistance to this. We found a bench less secluded,
less confidential, as it were, than the one in the arbor; and we were
still sitting there when I heard midnight ring out from those clear
bells of Venice which vibrate with a solemnity of their own over the
lagoon and hold the air so much more than the chimes of other places.
We were together more than an hour, and our interview gave, as it struck
me, a great lift to my undertaking. Miss Tita accepted the situation
without a protest; she had avoided me for three months, yet now she
treated me almost as if these three months had made me an old friend. If
I had chosen I might have inferred from this that though she had avoided
me she had given a good deal of consideration to doing so. She paid no
attention to the flight of time--never worried at my keeping her so long
away from her aunt. She talked freely, answering questions and asking
them and not even taking advantage of certain longish pauses with which
they inevitably alternated to say she thought she had better go in. It
was almost as if she were waiting for something--something I might say
to her--and intended to give me my opportunity. I was the more struck
by this as she told me that her aunt had been less well for a good many
days and in a way that was rather new. She was weaker; at moments it
seemed as if she had no strength at all; yet more than ever before she
wished to be left alone. That was why she had told her to come out--not
even to remain in her own room, which was alongside; she said her niece
irritated her, made her nervous. She sat still for hours together, as
if she were asleep; she had always done that, musing and dozing; but at
such times formerly she gave at intervals some small sign of life, of
interest, liking her companion to be near her with her work. Miss Tita
confided to me that at present her aunt was so motionless that she
sometimes feared she was dead; moreover she took hardly any food--one
couldn’t see what she lived on. The great thing was that she still on
most days got up; the serious job was to dress her, to wheel her out of
her bedroom. She clung to as many of her old habits as possible and she
had always, little company as they had received for years, made a point
of sitting in the parlor.

I scarcely knew what to think of all this--of Miss Tita’s sudden
conversion to sociability and of the strange circumstance that the more
the old lady appeared to decline toward her end the less she should
desire to be looked after. The story did not hang together, and I even
asked myself whether it were not a trap laid for me, the result of a
design to make me show my hand. I could not have told why my companions
(as they could only by courtesy be called) should have this purpose--why
they should try to trip up so lucrative a lodger. At any rate I kept on
my guard, so that Miss Tita should not have occasion again to ask me if
I had an arriere-pensee. Poor woman, before we parted for the night my
mind was at rest as to HER capacity for entertaining one.

She told me more about their affairs than I had hoped; there was no
need to be prying, for it evidently drew her out simply to feel that I
listened, that I cared. She ceased wondering why I cared, and at last,
as she spoke of the brilliant life they had led years before, she almost
chattered. It was Miss Tita who judged it brilliant; she said that when
they first came to live in Venice, years and years before (I saw that
her mind was essentially vague about dates and the order in which events
had occurred), there was scarcely a week that they had not some visitor
or did not make some delightful passeggio in the city. They had seen all
the curiosities; they had even been to the Lido in a boat (she spoke
as if I might think there was a way on foot); they had had a collation
there, brought in three baskets and spread out on the grass. I asked
her what people they had known and she said, Oh! very nice ones--the
Cavaliere Bombicci and the Contessa Altemura, with whom they had had a
great friendship. Also English people--the Churtons and the Goldies and
Mrs. Stock-Stock, whom they had loved dearly; she was dead and gone,
poor dear. That was the case with most of their pleasant circle (this
expression was Miss Tita’s own), though a few were left, which was a
wonder considering how they had neglected them. She mentioned the names
of two or three Venetian old women; of a certain doctor, very clever,
who was so kind--he came as a friend, he had really given up practice;
of the avvocato Pochintesta, who wrote beautiful poems and had addressed
one to her aunt. These people came to see them without fail every year,
usually at the capo d’anno, and of old her aunt used to make them some
little present--her aunt and she together: small things that she, Miss
Tita, made herself, like paper lampshades or mats for the decanters of
wine at dinner or those woolen things that in cold weather were worn
on the wrists. The last few years there had not been many presents; she
could not think what to make, and her aunt had lost her interest and
never suggested. But the people came all the same; if the Venetians
liked you once they liked you forever.

There was something affecting in the good faith of this sketch of former
social glories; the picnic at the Lido had remained vivid through the
ages, and poor Miss Tita evidently was of the impression that she had
had a brilliant youth. She had in fact had a glimpse of the Venetian
world in its gossiping, home-keeping, parsimonious, professional walks;
for I observed for the first time that she had acquired by contact
something of the trick of the familiar, soft-sounding, almost infantile
speech of the place. I judged that she had imbibed this invertebrate
dialect from the natural way the names of things and people--mostly
purely local--rose to her lips. If she knew little of what they
represented she knew still less of anything else. Her aunt had drawn
in--her failing interest in the table mats and lampshades was a sign of
that--and she had not been able to mingle in society or to entertain
it alone; so that the matter of her reminiscences struck one as an old
world altogether. If she had not been so decent her references would
have seemed to carry one back to the queer rococo Venice of Casanova.
I found myself falling into the error of thinking of her too as one of
Jeffrey Aspern’s contemporaries; this came from her having so little in
common with my own. It was possible, I said to myself, that she had not
even heard of him; it might very well be that Juliana had not cared to
lift even for her the veil that covered the temple of her youth. In this
case she perhaps would not know of the existence of the papers, and I
welcomed that presumption--it made me feel more safe with her--until
I remembered that we had believed the letter of disavowal received by
Cumnor to be in the handwriting of the niece. If it had been dictated
to her she had of course to know what it was about; yet after all the
effect of it was to repudiate the idea of any connection with the poet.
I held it probable at all events that Miss Tita had not read a word of
his poetry. Moreover if, with her companion, she had always escaped the
interviewer there was little occasion for her having got it into her
head that people were “after” the letters. People had not been after
them, inasmuch as they had not heard of them; and Cumnor’s fruitless
feeler would have been a solitary accident.

When midnight sounded Miss Tita got up; but she stopped at the door of
the house only after she had wandered two or three times with me round
the garden. “When shall I see you again?” I asked before she went in; to
which she replied with promptness that she should like to come out the
next night. She added however that she should not come--she was so far
from doing everything she liked.

“You might do a few things that _I_ like,” I said with a sigh.

“Oh, you--I don’t believe you!” she murmured at this, looking at me with
her simple solemnity.

“Why don’t you believe me?”

“Because I don’t understand you.”

“That is just the sort of occasion to have faith.” I could not say more,
though I should have liked to, as I saw that I only mystified her; for
I had no wish to have it on my conscience that I might pass for
having made love to her. Nothing less should I have seemed to do had
I continued to beg a lady to “believe in me” in an Italian garden on
a midsummer night. There was some merit in my scruples, for Miss Tita
lingered and lingered: I perceived that she felt that she should
not really soon come down again and wished therefore to protract the
present. She insisted too on making the talk between us personal to
ourselves; and altogether her behavior was such as would have been
possible only to a completely innocent woman.

“I shall like the flowers better now that I know they are also meant for
me.”

“How could you have doubted it? If you will tell me the kind you like
best I will send a double lot of them.”

“Oh, I like them all best!” Then she went on, familiarly: “Shall you
study--shall you read and write--when you go up to your rooms?”

“I don’t do that at night, at this season. The lamplight brings in the
animals.”

“You might have known that when you came.”

“I did know it!”

“And in winter do you work at night?”

“I read a good deal, but I don’t often write.” She listened as if these
details had a rare interest, and suddenly a temptation quite at variance
with the prudence I had been teaching myself associated itself with her
plain, mild face. Ah yes, she was safe and I could make her safer!
It seemed to me from one moment to another that I could not wait
longer--that I really must take a sounding. So I went on: “In general
before I go to sleep--very often in bed (it’s a bad habit, but I confess
to it), I read some great poet. In nine cases out of ten it’s a volume
of Jeffrey Aspern.”

I watched her well as I pronounced that name but I saw nothing
wonderful. Why should I indeed--was not Jeffrey Aspern the property of
the human race?

“Oh, we read him--we HAVE read him,” she quietly replied.

“He is my poet of poets--I know him almost by heart.”

For an instant Miss Tita hesitated; then her sociability was too much
for her.

“Oh, by heart--that’s nothing!” she murmured, smiling. “My aunt used to
know him--to know him”--she paused an instant and I wondered what she
was going to say--“to know him as a visitor.”

“As a visitor?” I repeated, staring.

“He used to call on her and take her out.”

I continued to stare. “My dear lady, he died a hundred years ago!”

“Well,” she said mirthfully, “my aunt is a hundred and fifty.”

“Mercy on us!” I exclaimed; “why didn’t you tell me before? I should
like so to ask her about him.”

“She wouldn’t care for that--she wouldn’t tell you,” Miss Tita replied.

“I don’t care what she cares for! She MUST tell me--it’s not a chance to
be lost.”

“Oh, you should have come twenty years ago: then she still talked about
him.”

“And what did she say?” I asked eagerly.

“I don’t know--that he liked her immensely.”

“And she--didn’t she like him?”

“She said he was a god.” Miss Tita gave me this information flatly,
without expression; her tone might have made it a piece of trivial
gossip. But it stirred me deeply as she dropped the words into the
summer night; it seemed such a direct testimony.

“Fancy, fancy!” I murmured. And then, “Tell me this, please--has she got
a portrait of him? They are distressingly rare.”

“A portrait? I don’t know,” said Miss Tita; and now there was
discomfiture in her face. “Well, good night!” she added; and she turned
into the house.

I accompanied her into the wide, dusky, stone-paved passage which on the
ground floor corresponded with our grand sala. It opened at one end into
the garden, at the other upon the canal, and was lighted now only by the
small lamp that was always left for me to take up as I went to bed. An
extinguished candle which Miss Tita apparently had brought down with her
stood on the same table with it. “Good night, good night!” I replied,
keeping beside her as she went to get her light. “Surely you would know,
shouldn’t you, if she had one?”

“If she had what?” the poor lady asked, looking at me queerly over the
flame of her candle.

“A portrait of the god. I don’t know what I wouldn’t give to see it.”

“I don’t know what she has got. She keeps her things locked up.” And
Miss Tita went away, toward the staircase, with the sense evidently that
she had said too much.

I let her go--I wished not to frighten her--and I contented myself with
remarking that Miss Bordereau would not have locked up such a glorious
possession as that--a thing a person would be proud of and hang up in a
prominent place on the parlor wall. Therefore of course she had not any
portrait. Miss Tita made no direct answer to this and, candle in hand,
with her back to me, ascended two or three stairs. Then she stopped
short and turned round, looking at me across the dusky space.

“Do you write--do you write?” There was a shake in her voice--she could
scarcely bring out what she wanted to ask.

“Do I write? Oh, don’t speak of my writing on the same day with
Aspern’s!”

“Do you write about HIM--do you pry into his life?”

“Ah, that’s your aunt’s question; it can’t be yours!” I said, in a tone
of slightly wounded sensibility.

“All the more reason then that you should answer it. Do you, please?”

I thought I had allowed for the falsehoods I should have to tell; but
I found that in fact when it came to the point I had not. Besides, now
that I had an opening there was a kind of relief in being frank. Lastly
(it was perhaps fanciful, even fatuous), I guessed that Miss Tita
personally would not in the last resort be less my friend. So after a
moment’s hesitation I answered, “Yes, I have written about him and I am
looking for more material. In heaven’s name have you got any?”

“Santo Dio!” she exclaimed, without heeding my question; and she hurried
upstairs and out of sight. I might count upon her in the last resort,
but for the present she was visibly alarmed. The proof of it was that
she began to hide again, so that for a fortnight I never beheld her. I
found my patience ebbing and after four or five days of this I told the
gardener to stop the flowers.



VI


One afternoon, as I came down from my quarters to go out, I found Miss
Tita in the sala: it was our first encounter on that ground since I had
come to the house. She put on no air of being there by accident; there
was an ignorance of such arts in her angular, diffident directness. That
I might be quite sure she was waiting for me she informed me of the fact
and told me that Miss Bordereau wished to see me: she would take me into
the room at that moment if I had time. If I had been late for a love
tryst I would have stayed for this, and I quickly signified that I
should be delighted to wait upon the old lady. “She wants to talk with
you--to know you,” Miss Tita said, smiling as if she herself appreciated
that idea; and she led me to the door of her aunt’s apartment. I
stopped her a moment before she had opened it, looking at her with some
curiosity. I told her that this was a great satisfaction to me and a
great honor; but all the same I should like to ask what had made
Miss Bordereau change so suddenly. It was only the other day that
she wouldn’t suffer me near her. Miss Tita was not embarrassed by my
question; she had as many little unexpected serenities as if she told
fibs, but the odd part of them was that they had on the contrary their
source in her truthfulness. “Oh, my aunt changes,” she answered; “it’s
so terribly dull--I suppose she’s tired.”

“But you told me that she wanted more and more to be alone.”

Poor Miss Tita colored, as if she found me over-insistent. “Well, if
you don’t believe she wants to see you--I haven’t invented it! I think
people often are capricious when they are very old.”

“That’s perfectly true. I only wanted to be clear as to whether you have
repeated to her what I told you the other night.”

“What you told me?”

“About Jeffrey Aspern--that I am looking for materials.”

“If I had told her do you think she would have sent for you?”

“That’s exactly what I want to know. If she wants to keep him to herself
she might have sent for me to tell me so.”

“She won’t speak of him,” said Miss Tita. Then as she opened the door
she added in a lower tone, “I have told her nothing.”

The old woman was sitting in the same place in which I had seen her
last, in the same position, with the same mystifying bandage over her
eyes. her welcome was to turn her almost invisible face to me and show
me that while she sat silent she saw me clearly. I made no motion to
shake hands with her; I felt too well on this occasion that that was out
of place forever. It had been sufficiently enjoined upon me that she was
too sacred for that sort of reciprocity--too venerable to touch. There
was something so grim in her aspect (it was partly the accident of her
green shade), as I stood there to be measured, that I ceased on the spot
to feel any doubt as to her knowing my secret, though I did not in the
least suspect that Miss Tita had not just spoken the truth. She had not
betrayed me, but the old woman’s brooding instinct had served her;
she had turned me over and over in the long, still hours, and she had
guessed. The worst of it was that she looked terribly like an old woman
who at a pinch would burn her papers. Miss Tita pushed a chair forward,
saying to me, “This will be a good place for you to sit.” As I took
possession of it I asked after Miss Bordereau’s health; expressed the
hope that in spite of the very hot weather it was satisfactory. She
replied that it was good enough--good enough; that it was a great thing
to be alive.

“Oh, as to that, it depends upon what you compare it with!” I exclaimed,
laughing.

“I don’t compare--I don’t compare. If I did that I should have given
everything up long ago.”

I liked to think that this was a subtle allusion to the rapture she had
known in the society of Jeffrey Aspern--though it was true that such an
allusion would have accorded ill with the wish I imputed to her to keep
him buried in her soul. What it accorded with was my constant conviction
that no human being had ever had a more delightful social gift than his,
and what it seemed to convey was that nothing in the world was worth
speaking of if one pretended to speak of that. But one did not! Miss
Tita sat down beside her aunt, looking as if she had reason to believe
some very remarkable conversation would come off between us.

“It’s about the beautiful flowers,” said the old lady; “you sent us so
many--I ought to have thanked you for them before. But I don’t write
letters and I receive only at long intervals.”

She had not thanked me while the flowers continued to come, but she
departed from her custom so far as to send for me as soon as she began
to fear that they would not come any more. I noted this; I remembered
what an acquisitive propensity she had shown when it was a question of
extracting gold from me, and I privately rejoiced at the happy thought I
had had in suspending my tribute. She had missed it and she was willing
to make a concession to bring it back. At the first sign of this
concession I could only go to meet her. “I am afraid you have not
had many, of late, but they shall begin again immediately--tomorrow,
tonight.”

“Oh, do send us some tonight!” Miss Tita cried, as if it were an immense
circumstance.

“What else should you do with them? It isn’t a manly taste to make a
bower of your room,” the old woman remarked.

“I don’t make a bower of my room, but I am exceedingly fond of growing
flowers, of watching their ways. There is nothing unmanly in that: it
has been the amusement of philosophers, of statesmen in retirement; even
I think of great captains.”

“I suppose you know you can sell them--those you don’t use,” Miss
Bordereau went on. “I daresay they wouldn’t give you much for them;
still, you could make a bargain.”

“Oh, I have never made a bargain, as you ought to know. My gardener
disposes of them and I ask no questions.”

“I would ask a few, I can promise you!” said Miss Bordereau; and it was
the first time I had heard her laugh. I could not get used to the
idea that this vision of pecuniary profit was what drew out the divine
Juliana most.

“Come into the garden yourself and pick them; come as often as you like;
come every day. They are all for you,” I pursued, addressing Miss Tita
and carrying off this veracious statement by treating it as an innocent
joke. “I can’t imagine why she doesn’t come down,” I added, for Miss
Bordereau’s benefit.

“You must make her come; you must come up and fetch her,” said the old
woman, to my stupefaction. “That odd thing you have made in the corner
would be a capital place for her to sit.”

The allusion to my arbor was irreverent; it confirmed the impression I
had already received that there was a flicker of impertinence in Miss
Bordereau’s talk, a strange mocking lambency which must have been a part
of her adventurous youth and which had outlived passions and faculties.
Nonetheless I asked, “Wouldn’t it be possible for you to come down there
yourself? Wouldn’t it do you good to sit there in the shade, in the
sweet air?”

“Oh, sir, when I move out of this it won’t be to sit in the air, and
I’m afraid that any that may be stirring around me won’t be particularly
sweet! It will be a very dark shade indeed. But that won’t be just yet,”
 Miss Bordereau continued cannily, as if to correct any hopes that this
courageous allusion to the last receptacle of her mortality might lead
me to entertain. “I have sat here many a day and I have had enough of
arbors in my time. But I’m not afraid to wait till I’m called.”

Miss Tita had expected some interesting talk, but perhaps she found it
less genial on her aunt’s side (considering that I had been sent
for with a civil intention) than she had hoped. As if to give the
conversation a turn that would put our companion in a light more
favorable she said to me, “Didn’t I tell you the other night that she
had sent me out? You see that I can do what I like!”

“Do you pity her--do you teach her to pity herself?” Miss Bordereau
demanded before I had time to answer this appeal. “She has a much easier
life than I had when I was her age.”

“You must remember that it has been quite open to me to think you rather
inhuman.”

“Inhuman? That’s what the poets used to call the women a hundred years
ago. Don’t try that; you won’t do as well as they!” Juliana declared.
“There is no more poetry in the world--that I know of at least. But
I won’t bandy words with you,” she pursued, and I well remember the
old-fashioned, artificial sound she gave to the speech. “You have made
me talk, talk! It isn’t good for me at all.” I got up at this and told
her I would take no more of her time; but she detained me to ask, “Do
you remember, the day I saw you about the rooms, that you offered us the
use of your gondola?” And when I assented, promptly, struck again with
her disposition to make a “good thing” of being there and wondering what
she now had in her eye, she broke out, “Why don’t you take that girl out
in it and show her the place?”

“Oh, dear Aunt, what do you want to do with me?” cried the “girl” with a
piteous quaver. “I know all about the place!”

“Well then, go with him as a cicerone!” said Miss Bordereau with an
effort of something like cruelty in her implacable power of retort--an
incongruous suggestion that she was a sarcastic, profane, cynical old
woman. “Haven’t we heard that there have been all sorts of changes in
all these years? You ought to see them and at your age (I don’t mean
because you’re so young) you ought to take the chances that come. You’re
old enough, my dear, and this gentleman won’t hurt you. He will show you
the famous sunsets, if they still go on--DO they go on? The sun set for
me so long ago. But that’s not a reason. Besides, I shall never miss
you; you think you are too important. Take her to the Piazza; it used
to be very pretty,” Miss Bordereau continued, addressing herself to me.
“What have they done with the funny old church? I hope it hasn’t tumbled
down. Let her look at the shops; she may take some money, she may buy
what she likes.”

Poor Miss Tita had got up, discountenanced and helpless, and as we stood
there before her aunt it would certainly have seemed to a spectator of
the scene that the old woman was amusing herself at our expense. Miss
Tita protested, in a confusion of exclamations and murmurs; but I
lost no time in saying that if she would do me the honor to accept the
hospitality of my boat I would engage that she should not be bored.
Or if she did not want so much of my company the boat itself, with the
gondolier, was at her service; he was a capital oar and she might have
every confidence. Miss Tita, without definitely answering this speech,
looked away from me, out of the window, as if she were going to cry; and
I remarked that once we had Miss Bordereau’s approval we could easily
come to an understanding. We would take an hour, whichever she liked,
one of the very next days. As I made my obeisance to the old lady I
asked her if she would kindly permit me to see her again.

For a moment she said nothing; then she inquired, “Is it very necessary
to your happiness?”

“It diverts me more than I can say.”

“You are wonderfully civil. Don’t you know it almost kills ME?”

“How can I believe that when I see you more animated, more brilliant
than when I came in?”

“That is very true, Aunt,” said Miss Tita. “I think it does you good.”

“Isn’t it touching, the solicitude we each have that the other shall
enjoy herself?” sneered Miss Bordereau. “If you think me brilliant
today you don’t know what you are talking about; you have never seen an
agreeable woman. Don’t try to pay me a compliment; I have been spoiled,”
 she went on. “My door is shut, but you may sometimes knock.”

With this she dismissed me, and I left the room. The latch closed behind
me, but Miss Tita, contrary to my hope, had remained within. I passed
slowly across the hall and before taking my way downstairs I waited
a little. My hope was answered; after a minute Miss Tita followed me.
“That’s a delightful idea about the Piazza,” I said. “When will you
go--tonight, tomorrow?”

She had been disconcerted, as I have mentioned, but I had already
perceived and I was to observe again that when Miss Tita was embarrassed
she did not (as most women would have done) turn away from you and try
to escape, but came closer, as it were, with a deprecating, clinging
appeal to be spared, to be protected. Her attitude was perpetually a
sort of prayer for assistance, for explanation; and yet no woman in the
world could have been less of a comedian. From the moment you were kind
to her she depended on you absolutely; her self-consciousness dropped
from her and she took the greatest intimacy, the innocent intimacy which
was the only thing she could conceive, for granted. She told me she did
not know what had got into her aunt; she had changed so quickly, she had
got some idea. I replied that she must find out what the idea was and
then let me know; we would go and have an ice together at Florian’s, and
she should tell me while we listened to the band.

“Oh, it will take me a long time to find out!” she said, rather
ruefully; and she could promise me this satisfaction neither for that
night nor for the next. I was patient now, however, for I felt that I
had only to wait; and in fact at the end of the week, one lovely evening
after dinner, she stepped into my gondola, to which in honor of the
occasion I had attached a second oar.

We swept in the course of five minutes into the Grand Canal; whereupon
she uttered a murmur of ecstasy as fresh as if she had been a tourist
just arrived. She had forgotten how splendid the great waterway looked
on a clear, hot summer evening, and how the sense of floating between
marble palaces and reflected lights disposed the mind to sympathetic
talk. We floated long and far, and though Miss Tita gave no high-pitched
voice to her satisfaction I felt that she surrendered herself. She was
more than pleased, she was transported; the whole thing was an immense
liberation. The gondola moved with slow strokes, to give her time to
enjoy it, and she listened to the plash of the oars, which grew louder
and more musically liquid as we passed into narrow canals, as if it were
a revelation of Venice. When I asked her how long it was since she had
been in a boat she answered, “Oh, I don’t know; a long time--not since
my aunt began to be ill.” This was not the only example she gave me of
her extreme vagueness about the previous years and the line which marked
off the period when Miss Bordereau flourished. I was not at liberty to
keep her out too long, but we took a considerable GIRO before going
to the Piazza. I asked her no questions, keeping the conversation on
purpose away from her domestic situation and the things I wanted to
know; I poured treasures of information about Venice into her ears,
described Florence and Rome, discoursed to her on the charms and
advantages of travel. She reclined, receptive, on the deep leather
cushions, turned her eyes conscientiously to everything I pointed out to
her, and never mentioned to me till sometime afterward that she might
be supposed to know Florence better than I, as she had lived there for
years with Miss Bordereau. At last she asked, with the shy impatience of
a child, “Are we not really going to the Piazza? That’s what I want to
see!” I immediately gave the order that we should go straight; and
then we sat silent with the expectation of arrival. As some time still
passed, however, she said suddenly, of her own movement, “I have found
out what is the matter with my aunt: she is afraid you will go!”

“What has put that into her head?”

“She has had an idea you have not been happy. That is why she is
different now.”

“You mean she wants to make me happier?”

“Well, she wants you not to go; she wants you to stay.”

“I suppose you mean on account of the rent,” I remarked candidly.

Miss Tita’s candor showed itself a match for my own. “Yes, you know; so
that I shall have more.”

“How much does she want you to have?” I asked, laughing. “She ought to
fix the sum, so that I may stay till it’s made up.”

“Oh, that wouldn’t please me,” said Miss Tita. “It would be unheard of,
your taking that trouble.”

“But suppose I should have my own reasons for staying in Venice?”

“Then it would be better for you to stay in some other house.”

“And what would your aunt say to that?”

“She wouldn’t like it at all. But I should think you would do well to
give up your reasons and go away altogether.”

“Dear Miss Tita,” I said, “it’s not so easy to give them up!”

She made no immediate answer to this, but after a moment she broke out:
“I think I know what your reasons are!”

“I daresay, because the other night I almost told you how I wish you
would help me to make them good.”

“I can’t do that without being false to my aunt.”

“What do you mean, being false to her?”

“Why, she would never consent to what you want. She has been asked, she
has been written to. It made her fearfully angry.”

“Then she HAS got papers of value?” I demanded quickly.

“Oh, she has got everything!” sighed Miss Tita with a curious weariness,
a sudden lapse into gloom.

These words caused all my pulses to throb, for I regarded them as
precious evidence. For some minutes I was too agitated to speak, and
in the interval the gondola approached the Piazzetta. After we had
disembarked I asked my companion whether she would rather walk round the
square or go and sit at the door of the cafe; to which she replied that
she would do whichever I liked best--I must only remember again how
little time she had. I assured her there was plenty to do both, and we
made the circuit of the long arcades. Her spirits revived at the sight
of the bright shop windows, and she lingered and stopped, admiring or
disapproving of their contents, asking me what I thought of things,
theorizing about prices. My attention wandered from her; her words of
a while before, “Oh, she has got everything!” echoed so in my
consciousness. We sat down at last in the crowded circle at Florian’s,
finding an unoccupied table among those that were ranged in the square.
It was a splendid night and all the world was out-of-doors; Miss Tita
could not have wished the elements more auspicious for her return to
society. I saw that she enjoyed it even more than she told; she was
agitated with the multitude of her impressions. She had forgotten
what an attractive thing the world is, and it was coming over her that
somehow she had for the best years of her life been cheated of it. This
did not make her angry; but as she looked all over the charming scene
her face had, in spite of its smile of appreciation, the flush of a sort
of wounded surprise. She became silent, as if she were thinking with a
secret sadness of opportunities, forever lost, which ought to have been
easy; and this gave me a chance to say to her, “Did you mean a while ago
that your aunt has a plan of keeping me on by admitting me occasionally
to her presence?”

“She thinks it will make a difference with you if you sometimes see
her. She wants you so much to stay that she is willing to make that
concession.”

“And what good does she consider that I think it will do me to see her?”

“I don’t know; she thinks it’s interesting,” said Miss Tita simply. “You
told her you found it so.”

“So I did; but everyone doesn’t think so.”

“No, of course not, or more people would try.”

“Well, if she is capable of making that reflection she is capable of
making this further one,” I went on: “that I must have a particular
reason for not doing as others do, in spite of the interest she
offers--for not leaving her alone.” Miss Tita looked as if she failed to
grasp this rather complicated proposition; so I continued, “If you have
not told her what I said to you the other night may she not at least
have guessed it?”

“I don’t know; she is very suspicious.”

“But she has not been made so by indiscreet curiosity, by persecution?”

“No, no; it isn’t that,” said Miss Tita, turning on me a somewhat
troubled face. “I don’t know how to say it: it’s on account of
something--ages ago, before I was born--in her life.”

“Something? What sort of thing?” I asked as if I myself could have no
idea.

“Oh, she has never told me,” Miss Tita answered; and I was sure she was
speaking the truth.

Her extreme limpidity was almost provoking, and I felt for the moment
that she would have been more satisfactory if she had been less
ingenuous. “Do you suppose it’s something to which Jeffrey Aspern’s
letters and papers--I mean the things in her possession--have
reference?”

“I daresay it is!” my companion exclaimed as if this were a very happy
suggestion. “I have never looked at any of those things.”

“None of them? Then how do you know what they are?”

“I don’t,” said Miss Tita placidly. “I have never had them in my hands.
But I have seen them when she has had them out.”

“Does she have them out often?”

“Not now, but she used to. She is very fond of them.”

“In spite of their being compromising?”

“Compromising?” Miss Tita repeated as if she was ignorant of the meaning
of the word. I felt almost as one who corrupts the innocence of youth.

“I mean their containing painful memories.”

“Oh, I don’t think they are painful.”

“You mean you don’t think they affect her reputation?”

At this a singular look came into the face of Miss Bordereau’s niece--a
kind of confession of helplessness, an appeal to me to deal fairly,
generously with her. I had brought her to the Piazza, placed her among
charming influences, paid her an attention she appreciated, and now I
seemed to let her perceive that all this had been a bribe--a bribe to
make her turn in some way against her aunt. She was of a yielding nature
and capable of doing almost anything to please a person who was kind to
her; but the greatest kindness of all would be not to presume too much
on this. It was strange enough, as I afterward thought, that she had
not the least air of resenting my want of consideration for her aunt’s
character, which would have been in the worst possible taste if anything
less vital (from my point of view) had been at stake. I don’t think she
really measured it. “Do you mean that she did something bad?” she asked
in a moment.

“Heaven forbid I should say so, and it’s none of my business. Besides,
if she did,” I added, laughing, “it was in other ages, in another world.
But why should she not destroy her papers?”

“Oh, she loves them too much.”

“Even now, when she may be near her end?”

“Perhaps when she’s sure of that she will.”

“Well, Miss Tita,” I said, “it’s just what I should like you to
prevent.”

“How can I prevent it?”

“Couldn’t you get them away from her?”

“And give them to you?”

This put the case very crudely, though I am sure there was no irony in
her intention. “Oh, I mean that you might let me see them and look them
over. It isn’t for myself; there is no personal avidity in my desire.
It is simply that they would be of such immense interest to the public,
such immeasurable importance as a contribution to Jeffrey Aspern’s
history.”

She listened to me in her usual manner, as if my speech were full of
reference to things she had never heard of, and I felt particularly like
the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.
This was especially the case when after a moment she said. “There was
a gentleman who some time ago wrote to her in very much those words. He
also wanted her papers.”

“And did she answer him?” I asked, rather ashamed of myself for not
having her rectitude.

“Only when he had written two or three times. He made her very angry.”

“And what did she say?”

“She said he was a devil,” Miss Tita replied simply.

“She used that expression in her letter?”

“Oh, no; she said it to me. She made me write to him.”

“And what did you say?”

“I told him there were no papers at all.”

“Ah, poor gentleman!” I exclaimed.

“I knew there were, but I wrote what she bade me.”

“Of course you had to do that. But I hope I shall not pass for a devil.”

“It will depend upon what you ask me to do for you,” said Miss Tita,
smiling.

“Oh, if there is a chance of YOUR thinking so my affair is in a bad way!
I shan’t ask you to steal for me, nor even to fib--for you can’t fib,
unless on paper. But the principal thing is this--to prevent her from
destroying the papers.”

“Why, I have no control of her,” said Miss Tita. “It’s she who controls
me.”

“But she doesn’t control her own arms and legs, does she? The way she
would naturally destroy her letters would be to burn them. Now she can’t
burn them without fire, and she can’t get fire unless you give it to
her.”

“I have always done everything she has asked,” my companion rejoined.
“Besides, there’s Olimpia.”

I was on the point of saying that Olimpia was probably corruptible, but
I thought it best not to sound that note. So I simply inquired if that
faithful domestic could not be managed.

“Everyone can be managed by my aunt,” said Miss Tita. And then she
observed that her holiday was over; she must go home.

I laid my hand on her arm, across the table, to stay her a moment. “What
I want of you is a general promise to help me.”

“Oh, how can I--how can I?” she asked, wondering and troubled. She was
half-surprised, half-frightened at my wishing to make her play an active
part.

“This is the main thing: to watch her carefully and warn me in time,
before she commits that horrible sacrilege.”

“I can’t watch her when she makes me go out.”

“That’s very true.”

“And when you do, too.”

“Mercy on us; do you think she will have done anything tonight?”

“I don’t know; she is very cunning.”

“Are you trying to frighten me?” I asked.

I felt this inquiry sufficiently answered when my companion murmured in
a musing, almost envious way, “Oh, but she loves them--she loves them!”

This reflection, repeated with such emphasis, gave me great comfort; but
to obtain more of that balm I said, “If she shouldn’t intend to destroy
the objects we speak of before her death she will probably have made
some disposition by will.”

“By will?”

“Hasn’t she made a will for your benefit?”

“Why, she has so little to leave. That’s why she likes money,” said Miss
Tita.

“Might I ask, since we are really talking things over, what you and she
live on?”

“On some money that comes from America, from a lawyer. He sends it every
quarter. It isn’t much!”

“And won’t she have disposed of that?”

My companion hesitated--I saw she was blushing. “I believe it’s mine,”
 she said; and the look and tone which accompanied these words betrayed
so the absence of the habit of thinking of herself that I almost thought
her charming. The next instant she added, “But she had a lawyer once,
ever so long ago. And some people came and signed something.”

“They were probably witnesses. And you were not asked to sign? Well
then,” I argued rapidly and hopefully, “it is because you are the
legatee; she has left all her documents to you!”

“If she has it’s with very strict conditions,” Miss Tita responded,
rising quickly, while the movement gave the words a little character
of decision. They seemed to imply that the bequest would be accompanied
with a command that the articles bequeathed should remain concealed from
every inquisitive eye and that I was very much mistaken if I thought she
was the person to depart from an injunction so solemn.

“Oh, of course you will have to abide by the terms,” I said; and
she uttered nothing to mitigate the severity of this conclusion.
Nonetheless, later, just before we disembarked at her own door, on
our return, which had taken place almost in silence, she said to
me abruptly, “I will do what I can to help you.” I was grateful for
this--it was very well so far as it went; but it did not keep me from
remembering that night in a worried waking hour that I now had her
word for it to reinforce my own impression that the old woman was very
cunning.



VII


The fear of what this side of her character might have led her to do
made me nervous for days afterward. I waited for an intimation from
Miss Tita; I almost figured to myself that it was her duty to keep me
informed, to let me know definitely whether or no Miss Bordereau had
sacrificed her treasures. But as she gave no sign I lost patience and
determined to judge so far as was possible with my own senses. I sent
late one afternoon to ask if I might pay the ladies a visit, and
my servant came back with surprising news. Miss Bordereau could be
approached without the least difficulty; she had been moved out into
the sala and was sitting by the window that overlooked the garden. I
descended and found this picture correct; the old lady had been wheeled
forth into the world and had a certain air, which came mainly perhaps
from some brighter element in her dress, of being prepared again to have
converse with it. It had not yet, however, begun to flock about her;
she was perfectly alone and, though the door leading to her own quarters
stood open, I had at first no glimpse of Miss Tita. The window at which
she sat had the afternoon shade and, one of the shutters having been
pushed back, she could see the pleasant garden, where the summer sun had
by this time dried up too many of the plants--she could see the yellow
light and the long shadows.

“Have you come to tell me that you will take the rooms for six months
more?” she asked as I approached her, startling me by something coarse
in her cupidity almost as much as if she had not already given me a
specimen of it. Juliana’s desire to make our acquaintance lucrative had
been, as I have sufficiently indicated, a false note in my image of the
woman who had inspired a great poet with immortal lines; but I may say
here definitely that I recognized after all that it behooved me to make
a large allowance for her. It was I who had kindled the unholy flame; it
was I who had put into her head that she had the means of making
money. She appeared never to have thought of that; she had been living
wastefully for years, in a house five times too big for her, on a
footing that I could explain only by the presumption that, excessive as
it was, the space she enjoyed cost her next to nothing and that small
as were her revenues they left her, for Venice, an appreciable margin. I
had descended on her one day and taught her to calculate, and my
almost extravagant comedy on the subject of the garden had presented me
irresistibly in the light of a victim. Like all persons who achieve the
miracle of changing their point of view when they are old she had been
intensely converted; she had seized my hint with a desperate, tremulous
clutch.

I invited myself to go and get one of the chairs that stood, at a
distance, against the wall (she had given herself no concern as to
whether I should sit or stand); and while I placed it near her I
began, gaily, “Oh, dear madam, what an imagination you have, what an
intellectual sweep! I am a poor devil of a man of letters who lives
from day to day. How can I take palaces by the year? My existence is
precarious. I don’t know whether six months hence I shall have bread to
put in my mouth. I have treated myself for once; it has been an immense
luxury. But when it comes to going on--!”

“Are your rooms too dear? If they are you can have more for the same
money,” Juliana responded. “We can arrange, we can combinare, as they
say here.”

“Well yes, since you ask me, they are too dear,” I said. “Evidently you
suppose me richer than I am.”

She looked at me in her barricaded way. “If you write books don’t you
sell them?”

“Do you mean don’t people buy them? A little--not so much as I could
wish. Writing books, unless one be a great genius--and even then!--is
the last road to fortune. I think there is no more money to be made by
literature.”

“Perhaps you don’t choose good subjects. What do you write about?” Miss
Bordereau inquired.

“About the books of other people. I’m a critic, an historian, in a small
way.” I wondered what she was coming to.

“And what other people, now?”

“Oh, better ones than myself: the great writers mainly--the great
philosophers and poets of the past; those who are dead and gone and
can’t speak for themselves.”

“And what do you say about them?”

“I say they sometimes attached themselves to very clever women!” I
answered, laughing. I spoke with great deliberation, but as my words
fell upon the air they struck me as imprudent. However, I risked them
and I was not sorry, for perhaps after all the old woman would be
willing to treat. It seemed to be tolerably obvious that she knew my
secret: why therefore drag the matter out? But she did not take what I
had said as a confession; she only asked:

“Do you think it’s right to rake up the past?”

“I don’t know that I know what you mean by raking it up; but how can we
get at it unless we dig a little? The present has such a rough way of
treading it down.”

“Oh, I like the past, but I don’t like critics,” the old woman declared
with her fine tranquility.

“Neither do I, but I like their discoveries.”

“Aren’t they mostly lies?”

“The lies are what they sometimes discover,” I said, smiling at the
quiet impertinence of this. “They often lay bare the truth.”

“The truth is God’s, it isn’t man’s; we had better leave it alone. Who
can judge of it--who can say?”

“We are terribly in the dark, I know,” I admitted; “but if we give up
trying what becomes of all the fine things? What becomes of the work I
just mentioned, that of the great philosophers and poets? It is all vain
words if there is nothing to measure it by.”

“You talk as if you were a tailor,” said Miss Bordereau whimsically; and
then she added quickly, in a different manner, “This house is very fine;
the proportions are magnificent. Today I wanted to look at this place
again. I made them bring me out here. When your man came, just now, to
learn if I would see you, I was on the point of sending for you, to
ask if you didn’t mean to go on. I wanted to judge what I’m letting you
have. This sala is very grand,” she pursued, like an auctioneer, moving
a little, as I guessed, her invisible eyes. “I don’t believe you often
have lived in such a house, eh?”

“I can’t often afford to!” I said.

“Well then, how much will you give for six months?”

I was on the point of exclaiming--and the air of excruciation in my face
would have denoted a moral face--“Don’t, Juliana; for HIS sake, don’t!”
 But I controlled myself and asked less passionately: “Why should I
remain so long as that?”

“I thought you liked it,” said Miss Bordereau with her shriveled
dignity.

“So I thought I should.”

For a moment she said nothing more, and I left my own words to suggest
to her what they might. I half-expected her to say, coldly enough, that
if I had been disappointed we need not continue the discussion, and
this in spite of the fact that I believed her now to have in her
mind (however it had come there) what would have told her that my
disappointment was natural. But to my extreme surprise she ended by
observing: “If you don’t think we have treated you well enough perhaps
we can discover some way of treating you better.” This speech was
somehow so incongruous that it made me laugh again, and I excused myself
by saying that she talked as if I were a sulky boy, pouting in the
corner, to be “brought round.” I had not a grain of complaint to
make; and could anything have exceeded Miss Tita’s graciousness in
accompanying me a few nights before to the Piazza? At this the old woman
went on: “Well, you brought it on yourself!” And then in a different
tone, “She is a very nice girl.” I assented cordially to this
proposition, and she expressed the hope that I did so not merely to be
obliging, but that I really liked her. Meanwhile I wondered still more
what Miss Bordereau was coming to. “Except for me, today,” she said,
“she has not a relation in the world.” Did she by describing her niece
as amiable and unencumbered wish to represent her as a parti?

It was perfectly true that I could not afford to go on with my rooms at
a fancy price and that I had already devoted to my undertaking almost
all the hard cash I had set apart for it. My patience and my time were
by no means exhausted, but I should be able to draw upon them only on a
more usual Venetian basis. I was willing to pay the venerable woman
with whom my pecuniary dealings were such a discord twice as much as any
other padrona di casa would have asked, but I was not willing to pay her
twenty times as much. I told her so plainly, and my plainness appeared
to have some success, for she exclaimed, “Very good; you have done what
I asked--you have made an offer!”

“Yes, but not for half a year. Only by the month.”

“Oh, I must think of that then.” She seemed disappointed that I would
not tie myself to a period, and I guessed that she wished both to secure
me and to discourage me; to say severely, “Do you dream that you can get
off with less than six months? Do you dream that even by the end of that
time you will be appreciably nearer your victory?” What was more in my
mind was that she had a fancy to play me the trick of making me engage
myself when in fact she had annihilated the papers. There was a moment
when my suspense on this point was so acute that I all but broke out
with the question, and what kept it back was but a kind of instinctive
recoil (lest it should be a mistake), from the last violence of
self-exposure. She was such a subtle old witch that one could never
tell where one stood with her. You may imagine whether it cleared up the
puzzle when, just after she had said she would think of my proposal
and without any formal transition, she drew out of her pocket with an
embarrassed hand a small object wrapped in crumpled white paper. She
held it there a moment and then she asked, “Do you know much about
curiosities?”

“About curiosities?”

“About antiquities, the old gimcracks that people pay so much for today.
Do you know the kind of price they bring?”

I thought I saw what was coming, but I said ingenuously, “Do you want to
buy something?”

“No, I want to sell. What would an amateur give me for that?” She
unfolded the white paper and made a motion for me to take from her a
small oval portrait. I possessed myself of it with a hand of which I
could only hope that she did not perceive the tremor, and she added, “I
would part with it only for a good price.”

At the first glance I recognized Jeffrey Aspern, and I was well aware
that I flushed with the act. As she was watching me however I had the
consistency to exclaim, “What a striking face! Do tell me who it is.”

“It’s an old friend of mine, a very distinguished man in his day. He
gave it to me himself, but I’m afraid to mention his name, lest you
never should have heard of him, critic and historian as you are. I know
the world goes fast and one generation forgets another. He was all the
fashion when I was young.”

She was perhaps amazed at my assurance, but I was surprised at hers; at
her having the energy, in her state of health and at her time of
life, to wish to sport with me that way simply for her private
entertainment--the humor to test me and practice on me. This, at least,
was the interpretation that I put upon her production of the portrait,
for I could not believe that she really desired to sell it or cared
for any information I might give her. What she wished was to dangle it
before my eyes and put a prohibitive price on it. “The face comes back
to me, it torments me,” I said, turning the object this way and that and
looking at it very critically. It was a careful but not a supreme work
of art, larger than the ordinary miniature and representing a young man
with a remarkably handsome face, in a high-collared green coat and
a buff waistcoat. I judged the picture to have a valuable quality
of resemblance and to have been painted when the model was about
twenty-five years old. There are, as all the world knows, three other
portraits of the poet in existence, but none of them is of so early a
date as this elegant production. “I have never seen the original but
I have seen other likenesses,” I went on. “You expressed doubt of this
generation having heard of the gentleman, but he strikes me for all the
world as a celebrity. Now who is he? I can’t put my finger on him--I
can’t give him a label. Wasn’t he a writer? Surely he’s a poet.” I was
determined that it should be she, not I, who should first pronounce
Jeffrey Aspern’s name.

My resolution was taken in ignorance of Miss Bordereau’s extremely
resolute character, and her lips never formed in my hearing the
syllables that meant so much for her. She neglected to answer my
question but raised her hand to take back the picture, with a gesture
which though ineffectual was in a high degree peremptory. “It’s only
a person who should know for himself that would give me my price,” she
said with a certain dryness.

“Oh, then, you have a price?” I did not restore the precious thing; not
from any vindictive purpose but because I instinctively clung to it. We
looked at each other hard while I retained it.

“I know the least I would take. What it occurred to me to ask you about
is the most I shall be able to get.”

She made a movement, drawing herself together as if, in a spasm of
dread at having lost her treasure, she were going to attempt the immense
effort of rising to snatch it from me. I instantly placed it in her hand
again, saying as I did so, “I should like to have it myself, but with
your ideas I could never afford it.”

She turned the small oval plate over in her lap, with its face down,
and I thought I saw her catch her breath a little, as if she had had
a strain or an escape. This however did not prevent her saying in a
moment, “You would buy a likeness of a person you don’t know, by an
artist who has no reputation?”

“The artist may have no reputation, but that thing is wonderfully well
painted,” I replied, to give myself a reason.

“It’s lucky you thought of saying that, because the painter was my
father.”

“That makes the picture indeed precious!” I exclaimed, laughing; and I
may add that a part of my laughter came from my satisfaction in finding
that I had been right in my theory of Miss Bordereau’s origin. Aspern
had of course met the young lady when he went to her father’s studio as
a sitter. I observed to Miss Bordereau that if she would entrust me with
her property for twenty-four hours I should be happy to take advice upon
it; but she made no answer to this save to slip it in silence into her
pocket. This convinced me still more that she had no sincere intention
of selling it during her lifetime, though she may have desired to
satisfy herself as to the sum her niece, should she leave it to her,
might expect eventually to obtain for it. “Well, at any rate I hope
you will not offer it without giving me notice,” I said as she remained
irresponsive. “Remember that I am a possible purchaser.”

“I should want your money first!” she returned with unexpected rudeness;
and then, as if she bethought herself that I had just cause to complain
of such an insinuation and wished to turn the matter off, asked abruptly
what I talked about with her niece when I went out with her that way in
the evening.

“You speak as if we had set up the habit,” I replied. “Certainly I
should be very glad if it were to become a habit. But in that case I
should feel a still greater scruple at betraying a lady’s confidence.”

“Her confidence? Has she got confidence?”

“Here she is--she can tell you herself,” I said; for Miss Tita now
appeared on the threshold of the old woman’s parlor. “Have you got
confidence, Miss Tita? Your aunt wants very much to know.”

“Not in her, not in her!” the younger lady declared, shaking her head
with a dolefulness that was neither jocular not affected. “I don’t know
what to do with her; she has fits of horrid imprudence. She is so easily
tired--and yet she has begun to roam--to drag herself about the house.”
 And she stood looking down at her immemorial companion with a sort of
helpless wonder, as if all their years of familiarity had not made her
perversities, on occasion, any more easy to follow.

“I know what I’m about. I’m not losing my mind. I daresay you would like
to think so,” said Miss Bordereau with a cynical little sigh.

“I don’t suppose you came out here yourself. Miss Tita must have had to
lend you a hand,” I interposed with a pacifying intention.

“Oh, she insisted that we should push her; and when she insists!” said
Miss Tita in the same tone of apprehension; as if there were no knowing
what service that she disapproved of her aunt might force her next to
render.

“I have always got most things done I wanted, thank God! The people I
have lived with have humored me,” the old woman continued, speaking out
of the gray ashes of her vanity.

“I suppose you mean that they have obeyed you.”

“Well, whatever it is, when they like you.”

“It’s just because I like you that I want to resist,” said Miss Tita
with a nervous laugh.

“Oh, I suspect you’ll bring Miss Bordereau upstairs next to pay me a
visit,” I went on; to which the old lady replied:

“Oh, no; I can keep an eye on you from here!”

“You are very tired; you will certainly be ill tonight!” cried Miss
Tita.

“Nonsense, my dear; I feel better at this moment than I have done for
a month. Tomorrow I shall come out again. I want to be where I can see
this clever gentleman.”

“Shouldn’t you perhaps see me better in your sitting room?” I inquired.

“Don’t you mean shouldn’t you have a better chance at me?” she returned,
fixing me a moment with her green shade.

“Ah, I haven’t that anywhere! I look at you but I don’t see you.”

“You excite her dreadfully--and that is not good,” said Miss Tita,
giving me a reproachful, appealing look.

“I want to watch you--I want to watch you!” the old lady went on.

“Well then, let us spend as much of our time together as possible--I
don’t care where--and that will give you every facility.”

“Oh, I’ve seen you enough for today. I’m satisfied. Now I’ll go home.”
 Miss Tita laid her hands on the back of her aunt’s chair and began to
push, but I begged her to let me take her place. “Oh, yes, you may move
me this way--you shan’t in any other!” Miss Bordereau exclaimed as she
felt herself propelled firmly and easily over the smooth, hard floor.
Before we reached the door of her own apartment she commanded me to
stop, and she took a long, last look up and down the noble sala. “Oh,
it’s a magnificent house!” she murmured; after which I pushed her
forward. When we had entered the parlor Miss Tita told me that she
should now be able to manage, and at the same moment the little
red-haired donna came to meet her mistress. Miss Tita’s idea was
evidently to get her aunt immediately back to bed. I confess that in
spite of this urgency I was guilty of the indiscretion of lingering; it
held me there to think that I was nearer the documents I coveted--that
they were probably put away somewhere in the faded, unsociable room.
The place had indeed a bareness which did not suggest hidden treasures;
there were no dusky nooks nor curtained corners, no massive cabinets nor
chests with iron bands. Moreover it was possible, it was perhaps even
probable that the old lady had consigned her relics to her bedroom, to
some battered box that was shoved under the bed, to the drawer of some
lame dressing table, where they would be in the range of vision by the
dim night lamp. Nonetheless I scrutinized every article of furniture,
every conceivable cover for a hoard, and noticed that there were half a
dozen things with drawers, and in particular a tall old secretary,
with brass ornaments of the style of the Empire--a receptacle somewhat
rickety but still capable of keeping a great many secrets. I don’t
know why this article fascinated me so, inasmuch as I certainly had no
definite purpose of breaking into it; but I stared at it so hard that
Miss Tita noticed me and changed color. Her doing this made me think
I was right and that wherever they might have been before the Aspern
papers at that moment languished behind the peevish little lock of the
secretary. It was hard to remove my eyes from the dull mahogany front
when I reflected that a simple panel divided me from the goal of my
hopes; but I remembered my prudence and with an effort took leave of
Miss Bordereau. To make the effort graceful I said to her that I should
certainly bring her an opinion about the little picture.

“The little picture?” Miss Tita asked, surprised.

“What do YOU know about it, my dear?” the old woman demanded. “You
needn’t mind. I have fixed my price.”

“And what may that be?”

“A thousand pounds.”

“Oh Lord!” cried poor Miss Tita irrepressibly.

“Is that what she talks to you about?” said Miss Bordereau.

“Imagine your aunt’s wanting to know!” I had to separate from Miss Tita
with only those words, though I should have liked immensely to add, “For
heaven’s sake meet me tonight in the garden!”



VIII


As it turned out the precaution had not been needed, for three hours
later, just as I had finished my dinner, Miss Bordereau’s niece
appeared, unannounced, in the open doorway of the room in which my
simple repasts were served. I remember well that I felt no surprise at
seeing her; which is not a proof that I did not believe in her timidity.
It was immense, but in a case in which there was a particular reason for
boldness it never would have prevented her from running up to my rooms.
I saw that she was now quite full of a particular reason; it threw her
forward--made her seize me, as I rose to meet her, by the arm.

“My aunt is very ill; I think she is dying!”

“Never in the world,” I answered bitterly. “Don’t you be afraid!”

“Do go for a doctor--do, do! Olimpia is gone for the one we always have,
but she doesn’t come back; I don’t know what has happened to her. I told
her that if he was not at home she was to follow him where he had gone;
but apparently she is following him all over Venice. I don’t know what
to do--she looks so as if she were sinking.”

“May I see her, may I judge?” I asked. “Of course I shall be delighted
to bring someone; but hadn’t we better send my man instead, so that I
may stay with you?”

Miss Tita assented to this and I dispatched my servant for the best
doctor in the neighborhood. I hurried downstairs with her, and on the
way she told me that an hour after I quitted them in the afternoon Miss
Bordereau had had an attack of “oppression,” a terrible difficulty in
breathing. This had subsided but had left her so exhausted that she did
not come up: she seemed all gone. I repeated that she was not gone, that
she would not go yet; whereupon Miss Tita gave me a sharper sidelong
glance than she had ever directed at me and said, “Really, what do you
mean? I suppose you don’t accuse her of making believe!” I forget what
reply I made to this, but I grant that in my heart I thought the old
woman capable of any weird maneuver. Miss Tita wanted to know what I
had done to her; her aunt had told her that I had made her so angry. I
declared I had done nothing--I had been exceedingly careful; to which
my companion rejoined that Miss Bordereau had assured her she had had
a scene with me--a scene that had upset her. I answered with some
resentment that it was a scene of her own making--that I couldn’t think
what she was angry with me for unless for not seeing my way to give a
thousand pounds for the portrait of Jeffrey Aspern. “And did she show
you that? Oh, gracious--oh, deary me!” groaned Miss Tita, who appeared
to feel that the situation was passing out of her control and that the
elements of her fate were thickening around her. I said that I would
give anything to possess it, yet that I had not a thousand pounds; but
I stopped when we came to the door of Miss Bordereau’s room. I had an
immense curiosity to pass it, but I thought it my duty to represent
to Miss Tita that if I made the invalid angry she ought perhaps to be
spared the sight of me. “The sight of you? Do you think she can SEE?” my
companion demanded almost with indignation. I did think so but forebore
to say it, and I softly followed my conductress.

I remember that what I said to her as I stood for a moment beside the
old woman’s bed was, “Does she never show you her eyes then? Have you
never seen them?” Miss Bordereau had been divested of her green shade,
but (it was not my fortune to behold Juliana in her nightcap) the upper
half of her face was covered by the fall of a piece of dingy lacelike
muslin, a sort of extemporized hood which, wound round her head,
descended to the end of her nose, leaving nothing visible but her white
withered cheeks and puckered mouth, closed tightly and, as it were
consciously. Miss Tita gave me a glance of surprise, evidently not
seeing a reason for my impatience. “You mean that she always wears
something? She does it to preserve them.”

“Because they are so fine?”

“Oh, today, today!” And Miss Tita shook her head, speaking very low.
“But they used to be magnificent!”

“Yes indeed, we have Aspern’s word for that.” And as I looked again at
the old woman’s wrappings I could imagine that she had not wished to
allow people a reason to say that the great poet had overdone it. But
I did not waste my time in considering Miss Bordereau, in whom the
appearance of respiration was so slight as to suggest that no human
attention could ever help her more. I turned my eyes all over the room,
rummaging with them the closets, the chests of drawers, the tables. Miss
Tita met them quickly and read, I think, what was in them; but she
did not answer it, turning away restlessly, anxiously, so that I felt
rebuked, with reason, for a preoccupation that was almost profane in
the presence of our dying companion. All the same I took another look,
endeavoring to pick out mentally the place to try first, for a person
who should wish to put his hand on Miss Bordereau’s papers directly
after her death. The room was a dire confusion; it looked like the room
of an old actress. There were clothes hanging over chairs, odd-looking
shabby bundles here and there, and various pasteboard boxes piled
together, battered, bulging, and discolored, which might have been fifty
years old. Miss Tita after a moment noticed the direction of my
eyes again and, as if she guessed how I judged the air of the place
(forgetting I had no business to judge it at all), said, perhaps to
defend herself from the imputation of complicity in such untidiness:

“She likes it this way; we can’t move things. There are old bandboxes
she has had most of her life.” Then she added, half taking pity on my
real thought, “Those things were THERE.” And she pointed to a small,
low trunk which stood under a sofa where there was just room for it.
It appeared to be a queer, superannuated coffer, of painted wood, with
elaborate handles and shriveled straps and with the color (it had last
been endued with a coat of light green) much rubbed off. It evidently
had traveled with Juliana in the olden time--in the days of her
adventures, which it had shared. It would have made a strange figure
arriving at a modern hotel.

“WERE there--they aren’t now?” I asked, startled by Miss Tita’s
implication.

She was going to answer, but at that moment the doctor came in--the
doctor whom the little maid had been sent to fetch and whom she had at
last overtaken. My servant, going on his own errand, had met her with
her companion in tow, and in the sociable Venetian spirit, retracing his
steps with them, had also come up to the threshold of Miss Bordereau’s
room, where I saw him peeping over the doctor’s shoulder. I motioned him
away the more instantly that the sight of his prying face reminded me
that I myself had almost as little to do there--an admonition confirmed
by the sharp way the little doctor looked at me, appearing to take me
for a rival who had the field before him. He was a short, fat, brisk
gentleman who wore the tall hat of his profession and seemed to look
at everything but his patient. He looked particularly at me, as if it
struck him that I should be better for a dose, so that I bowed to him
and left him with the women, going down to smoke a cigar in the garden.
I was nervous; I could not go further; I could not leave the place.
I don’t know exactly what I thought might happen, but it seemed to me
important to be there. I wandered about in the alleys--the warm night
had come on--smoking cigar after cigar and looking at the light in Miss
Bordereau’s windows. They were open now, I could see; the situation
was different. Sometimes the light moved, but not quickly; it did not
suggest the hurry of a crisis. Was the old woman dying, or was she
already dead? Had the doctor said that there was nothing to be done at
her tremendous age but to let her quietly pass away; or had he simply
announced with a look a little more conventional that the end of the end
had come? Were the other two women moving about to perform the offices
that follow in such a case? It made me uneasy not to be nearer, as if I
thought the doctor himself might carry away the papers with him. I bit
my cigar hard as it came over me again that perhaps there were now no
papers to carry!

I wandered about for an hour--for an hour and a half. I looked out for
Miss Tita at one of the windows, having a vague idea that she might come
there to give me some sign. Would she not see the red tip of my cigar
moving about in the dark and feel that I wanted eminently to know what
the doctor had said? I am afraid it is a proof my anxieties had made me
gross that I should have taken in some degree for granted that at such
an hour, in the midst of the greatest change that could take place in
her life, they were uppermost also in Miss Tita’s mind. My servant came
down and spoke to me; he knew nothing save that the doctor had gone
after a visit of half an hour. If he had stayed half an hour then Miss
Bordereau was still alive: it could not have taken so much time as that
to enunciate the contrary. I sent the man out of the house; there were
moments when the sense of his curiosity annoyed me, and this was one of
them. HE had been watching my cigar tip from an upper window, if Miss
Tita had not; he could not know what I was after and I could not tell
him, though I was conscious he had fantastic private theories about me
which he thought fine and which I, had I known them, should have thought
offensive.

I went upstairs at last but I ascended no higher than the sala. The
door of Miss Bordereau’s apartment was open, showing from the parlor the
dimness of a poor candle. I went toward it with a light tread, and
at the same moment Miss Tita appeared and stood looking at me as I
approached. “She’s better--she’s better,” she said, even before I had
asked. “The doctor has given her something; she woke up, came back to
life while he was there. He says there is no immediate danger.”

“No immediate danger? Surely he thinks her condition strange!”

“Yes, because she had been excited. That affects her dreadfully.”

“It will do so again then, because she excites herself. She did so this
afternoon.”

“Yes; she mustn’t come out any more,” said Miss Tita, with one of her
lapses into a deeper placidity.

“What is the use of making such a remark as that if you begin to rattle
her about again the first time she bids you?”

“I won’t--I won’t do it any more.”

“You must learn to resist her,” I went on.

“Oh, yes, I shall; I shall do so better if you tell me it’s right.”

“You mustn’t do it for me; you must do it for yourself. It all comes
back to you, if you are frightened.”

“Well, I am not frightened now,” said Miss Tita cheerfully. “She is very
quiet.”

“Is she conscious again--does she speak?”

“No, she doesn’t speak, but she takes my hand. She holds it fast.”

“Yes,” I rejoined, “I can see what force she still has by the way she
grabbed that picture this afternoon. But if she holds you fast how comes
it that you are here?”

Miss Tita hesitated a moment; though her face was in deep shadow (she
had her back to the light in the parlor and I had put down my own
candle far off, near the door of the sala), I thought I saw her smile
ingenuously. “I came on purpose--I heard your step.”

“Why, I came on tiptoe, as inaudibly as possible.”

“Well, I heard you,” said Miss Tita.

“And is your aunt alone now?”

“Oh, no; Olimpia is sitting there.”

On my side I hesitated. “Shall we then step in there?” And I nodded at
the parlor; I wanted more and more to be on the spot.

“We can’t talk there--she will hear us.”

I was on the point of replying that in that case we would sit silent,
but I was too conscious that this would not do, as there was something I
desired immensely to ask her. So I proposed that we should walk a little
in the sala, keeping more at the other end, where we should not disturb
the old lady. Miss Tita assented unconditionally; the doctor was coming
again, she said, and she would be there to meet him at the door.
We strolled through the fine superfluous hall, where on the marble
floor--particularly as at first we said nothing--our footsteps were more
audible than I had expected. When we reached the other end--the wide
window, inveterately closed, connecting with the balcony that overhung
the canal--I suggested that we should remain there, as she would see the
doctor arrive still better. I opened the window and we passed out on the
balcony. The air of the canal seemed even heavier, hotter than that of
the sala. The place was hushed and void; the quiet neighborhood had gone
to sleep. A lamp, here and there, over the narrow black water, glimmered
in double; the voice of a man going homeward singing, with his jacket
on his shoulder and his hat on his ear, came to us from a distance.
This did not prevent the scene from being very comme il faut, as Miss
Bordereau had called it the first time I saw her. Presently a gondola
passed along the canal with its slow rhythmical plash, and as we
listened we watched it in silence. It did not stop, it did not carry the
doctor; and after it had gone on I said to Miss Tita:

“And where are they now--the things that were in the trunk?”

“In the trunk?”

“That green box you pointed out to me in her room. You said her papers
had been there; you seemed to imply that she had transferred them.”

“Oh, yes; they are not in the trunk,” said Miss Tita.

“May I ask if you have looked?”

“Yes, I have looked--for you.”

“How for me, dear Miss Tita? Do you mean you would have given them to me
if you had found them?” I asked, almost trembling.

She delayed to reply and I waited. Suddenly she broke out, “I don’t know
what I would do--what I wouldn’t!”

“Would you look again--somewhere else?”

She had spoken with a strange unexpected emotion, and she went on in the
same tone: “I can’t--I can’t--while she lies there. It isn’t decent.”

“No, it isn’t decent,” I replied gravely. “Let the poor lady rest in
peace.” And the words, on my lips, were not hypocritical, for I felt
reprimanded and shamed.

Miss Tita added in a moment, as if she had guessed this and were sorry
for me, but at the same time wished to explain that I did drive her on
or at least did insist too much: “I can’t deceive her that way. I can’t
deceive her--perhaps on her deathbed.”

“Heaven forbid I should ask you, though I have been guilty myself!”

“You have been guilty?”

“I have sailed under false colors.” I felt now as if I must tell her
that I had given her an invented name, on account of my fear that her
aunt would have heard of me and would refuse to take me in. I explained
this and also that I had really been a party to the letter written to
them by John Cumnor months before.

She listened with great attention, looking at me with parted lips, and
when I had made my confession she said, “Then your real name--what is
it?” She repeated it over twice when I had told her, accompanying it
with the exclamation “Gracious, gracious!” Then she added, “I like your
own best.”

“So do I,” I said, laughing. “Ouf! it’s a relief to get rid of the
other.”

“So it was a regular plot--a kind of conspiracy?”

“Oh, a conspiracy--we were only two,” I replied, leaving out Mrs. Prest
of course.

She hesitated; I thought she was perhaps going to say that we had been
very base. But she remarked after a moment, in a candid, wondering way,
“How much you must want them!”

“Oh, I do, passionately!” I conceded, smiling. And this chance made
me go on, forgetting my compunction of a moment before. “How can she
possibly have changed their place herself? How can she walk? How can
she arrive at that sort of muscular exertion? How can she lift and carry
things?”

“Oh, when one wants and when one has so much will!” said Miss Tita, as
if she had thought over my question already herself and had simply had
no choice but that answer--the idea that in the dead of night, or at
some moment when the coast was clear, the old woman had been capable of
a miraculous effort.

“Have you questioned Olimpia? Hasn’t she helped her--hasn’t she done it
for her?” I asked; to which Miss Tita replied promptly and positively
that their servant had had nothing to do with the matter, though without
admitting definitely that she had spoken to her. It was as if she were
a little shy, a little ashamed now of letting me see how much she had
entered into my uneasiness and had me on her mind. Suddenly she said to
me, without any immediate relevance:

“I feel as if you were a new person, now that you have got a new name.”

“It isn’t a new one; it is a very good old one, thank heaven!”

She looked at me a moment. “I do like it better.”

“Oh, if you didn’t I would almost go on with the other!”

“Would you really?”

I laughed again, but for all answer to this inquiry I said, “Of course
if she can rummage about that way she can perfectly have burnt them.”

“You must wait--you must wait,” Miss Tita moralized mournfully; and her
tone ministered little to my patience, for it seemed after all to accept
that wretched possibility. I would teach myself to wait, I declared
nevertheless; because in the first place I could not do otherwise and in
the second I had her promise, given me the other night, that she would
help me.

“Of course if the papers are gone that’s no use,” she said; not as if
she wished to recede, but only to be conscientious.

“Naturally. But if you could only find out!” I groaned, quivering again.

“I thought you said you would wait.”

“Oh, you mean wait even for that?”

“For what then?”

“Oh, nothing,” I replied, rather foolishly, being ashamed to tell her
what had been implied in my submission to delay--the idea that she would
do more than merely find out. I know not whether she guessed this; at
all events she appeared to become aware of the necessity for being a
little more rigid.

“I didn’t promise to deceive, did I? I don’t think I did.”

“It doesn’t much matter whether you did or not, for you couldn’t!”

I don’t think Miss Tita would have contested this event had she not been
diverted by our seeing the doctor’s gondola shoot into the little canal
and approach the house. I noted that he came as fast as if he believed
that Miss Bordereau was still in danger. We looked down at him while he
disembarked and then went back into the sala to meet him. When he came
up however I naturally left Miss Tita to go off with him alone, only
asking her leave to come back later for news.

I went out of the house and took a long walk, as far as the Piazza,
where my restlessness declined to quit me. I was unable to sit down (it
was very late now but there were people still at the little tables in
front of the cafes); I could only walk round and round, and I did
so half a dozen times. I was uncomfortable, but it gave me a certain
pleasure to have told Miss Tita who I really was. At last I took my way
home again, slowly getting all but inextricably lost, as I did whenever
I went out in Venice: so that it was considerably past midnight when I
reached my door. The sala, upstairs, was as dark as usual and my lamp as
I crossed it found nothing satisfactory to show me. I was disappointed,
for I had notified Miss Tita that I would come back for a report, and
I thought she might have left a light there as a sign. The door of
the ladies’ apartment was closed; which seemed an intimation that my
faltering friend had gone to bed, tired of waiting for me. I stood
in the middle of the place, considering, hoping she would hear me and
perhaps peep out, saying to myself too that she would never go to bed
with her aunt in a state so critical; she would sit up and watch--she
would be in a chair, in her dressing gown. I went nearer the door; I
stopped there and listened. I heard nothing at all and at last I tapped
gently. No answer came and after another minute I turned the handle.
There was no light in the room; this ought to have prevented me from
going in, but it had no such effect. If I have candidly narrated the
importunities, the indelicacies, of which my desire to possess myself of
Jeffrey Aspern’s papers had rendered me capable I need not shrink from
confessing this last indiscretion. I think it was the worst thing I did;
yet there were extenuating circumstances. I was deeply though doubtless
not disinterestedly anxious for more news of the old lady, and Miss Tita
had accepted from me, as it were, a rendezvous which it might have been
a point of honor with me to keep. It may be said that her leaving the
place dark was a positive sign that she released me, and to this I can
only reply that I desired not to be released.

The door of Miss Bordereau’s room was open and I could see beyond it the
faintness of a taper. There was no sound--my footstep caused no one to
stir. I came further into the room; I lingered there with my lamp in my
hand. I wanted to give Miss Tita a chance to come to me if she were with
her aunt, as she must be. I made no noise to call her; I only waited to
see if she would not notice my light. She did not, and I explained this
(I found afterward I was right) by the idea that she had fallen
asleep. If she had fallen asleep her aunt was not on her mind, and my
explanation ought to have led me to go out as I had come. I must repeat
again that it did not, for I found myself at the same moment thinking of
something else. I had no definite purpose, no bad intention, but I
felt myself held to the spot by an acute, though absurd, sense of
opportunity. For what I could not have said, inasmuch as it was not
in my mind that I might commit a theft. Even if it had been I was
confronted with the evident fact that Miss Bordereau did not leave her
secretary, her cupboard, and the drawers of her tables gaping. I had no
keys, no tools, and no ambition to smash her furniture. Nonetheless it
came to me that I was now, perhaps alone, unmolested, at the hour of
temptation and secrecy, nearer to the tormenting treasure than I had
ever been. I held up my lamp, let the light play on the different
objects as if it could tell me something. Still there came no movement
from the other room. If Miss Tita was sleeping she was sleeping sound.
Was she doing so--generous creature--on purpose to leave me the field?
Did she know I was there and was she just keeping quiet to see what I
would do--what I COULD do? But what could I do, when it came to that?
She herself knew even better than I how little.

I stopped in front of the secretary, looking at it very idiotically; for
what had it to say to me after all? In the first place it was locked,
and in the second it almost surely contained nothing in which I was
interested. Ten to one the papers had been destroyed; and even if they
had not been destroyed the old woman would not have put them in such a
place as that after removing them from the green trunk--would not have
transferred them, if she had the idea of their safety on her brain,
from the better hiding place to the worse. The secretary was more
conspicuous, more accessible in a room in which she could no longer
mount guard. It opened with a key, but there was a little brass handle,
like a button, as well; I saw this as I played my lamp over it. I did
something more than this at that moment: I caught a glimpse of the
possibility that Miss Tita wished me really to understand. If she did
not wish me to understand, if she wished me to keep away, why had she
not locked the door of communication between the sitting room and the
sala? That would have been a definite sign that I was to leave them
alone. If I did not leave them alone she meant me to come for a
purpose--a purpose now indicated by the quick, fantastic idea that to
oblige me she had unlocked the secretary. She had not left the key,
but the lid would probably move if I touched the button. This theory
fascinated me, and I bent over very close to judge. I did not propose
to do anything, not even--not in the least--to let down the lid; I only
wanted to test my theory, to see if the cover WOULD move. I touched the
button with my hand--a mere touch would tell me; and as I did so (it is
embarrassing for me to relate it), I looked over my shoulder. It was
a chance, an instinct, for I had not heard anything. I almost let my
luminary drop and certainly I stepped back, straightening myself up at
what I saw. Miss Bordereau stood there in her nightdress, in the doorway
of her room, watching me; her hands were raised, she had lifted the
everlasting curtain that covered half her face, and for the first, the
last, the only time I beheld her extraordinary eyes. They glared at me,
they made me horribly ashamed. I never shall forget her strange little
bent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her
expression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned,
looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously:

“Ah, you publishing scoundrel!”

I know not what I stammered, to excuse myself, to explain; but I went
toward her, to tell her I meant no harm. She waved me off with her old
hands, retreating before me in horror; and the next thing I knew she had
fallen back with a quick spasm, as if death had descended on her, into
Miss Tita’s arms.



IX


I left Venice the next morning, as soon as I learned that the old lady
had not succumbed, as I feared at the moment, to the shock I had given
her--the shock I may also say she had given me. How in the world could I
have supposed her capable of getting out of bed by herself? I failed to
see Miss Tita before going; I only saw the donna, whom I entrusted with
a note for her younger mistress. In this note I mentioned that I
should be absent but for a few days. I went to Treviso, to Bassano, to
Castelfranco; I took walks and drives and looked at musty old churches
with ill-lighted pictures and spent hours seated smoking at the doors of
cafes, where there were flies and yellow curtains, on the shady side of
sleepy little squares. In spite of these pastimes, which were mechanical
and perfunctory, I scantily enjoyed my journey: there was too strong a
taste of the disagreeable in my life. I had been devilish awkward, as
the young men say, to be found by Miss Bordereau in the dead of night
examining the attachment of her bureau; and it had not been less so
to have to believe for a good many hours afterward that it was highly
probable I had killed her. In writing to Miss Tita I attempted to
minimize these irregularities; but as she gave me no word of answer I
could not know what impression I made upon her. It rankled in my mind
that I had been called a publishing scoundrel, for certainly I did
publish and certainly I had not been very delicate. There was a moment
when I stood convinced that the only way to make up for this latter
fault was to take myself away altogether on the instant; to sacrifice
my hopes and relieve the two poor women forever of the oppression of
my intercourse. Then I reflected that I had better try a short absence
first, for I must already have had a sense (unexpressed and dim) that
in disappearing completely it would not be merely my own hopes that I
should condemn to extinction. It would perhaps be sufficient if I stayed
away long enough to give the elder lady time to think she was rid of me.
That she would wish to be rid of me after this (if I was not rid of her)
was now not to be doubted: that nocturnal scene would have cured her of
the disposition to put up with my company for the sake of my dollars.
I said to myself that after all I could not abandon Miss Tita, and I
continued to say this even while I observed that she quite failed to
comply with my earnest request (I had given her two or three addresses,
at little towns, post restante) that she would let me know how she was
getting on. I would have made my servant write to me but that he was
unable to manage a pen. It struck me there was a kind of scorn in Miss
Tita’s silence (little disdainful as she had ever been), so that I was
uncomfortable and sore. I had scruples about going back and yet I
had others about not doing so, for I wanted to put myself on a better
footing. The end of it was that I did return to Venice on the twelfth
day; and as my gondola gently bumped against Miss Bordereau’s steps
a certain palpitation of suspense told me that I had done myself a
violence in holding off so long.

I had faced about so abruptly that I had not telegraphed to my servant.
He was therefore not at the station to meet me, but he poked out his
head from an upper window when I reached the house. “They have put her
into the earth, la vecchia,” he said to me in the lower hall, while he
shouldered my valise; and he grinned and almost winked, as if he knew I
should be pleased at the news.

“She’s dead!” I exclaimed, giving him a very different look.

“So it appears, since they have buried her.”

“It’s all over? When was the funeral?”

“The other yesterday. But a funeral you could scarcely call it, signore;
it was a dull little passeggio of two gondolas. Poveretta!” the man
continued, referring apparently to Miss Tita. His conception of funerals
was apparently that they were mainly to amuse the living.

I wanted to know about Miss Tita--how she was and where she was--but I
asked him no more questions till we had got upstairs. Now that the fact
had met me I took a bad view of it, especially of the idea that poor
Miss Tita had had to manage by herself after the end. What did she know
about arrangements, about the steps to take in such a case? Poveretta
indeed! I could only hope that the doctor had given her assistance and
that she had not been neglected by the old friends of whom she had told
me, the little band of the faithful whose fidelity consisted in coming
to the house once a year. I elicited from my servant that two old
ladies and an old gentleman had in fact rallied round Miss Tita and had
supported her (they had come for her in a gondola of their own) during
the journey to the cemetery, the little red-walled island of tombs which
lies to the north of the town, on the way to Murano. It appeared
from these circumstances that the Misses Bordereau were Catholics, a
discovery I had never made, as the old woman could not go to church and
her niece, so far as I perceived, either did not or went only to early
mass in the parish, before I was stirring. Certainly even the priests
respected their seclusion; I had never caught the whisk of the curato’s
skirt. That evening, an hour later, I sent my servant down with five
words written on a card, to ask Miss Tita if she would see me for a few
moments. She was not in the house, where he had sought her, he told me
when he came back, but in the garden walking about to refresh herself
and gathering flowers. He had found her there and she would be very
happy to see me.

I went down and passed half an hour with poor Miss Tita. She had always
had a look of musty mourning (as if she were wearing out old robes of
sorrow that would not come to an end), and in this respect there was no
appreciable change in her appearance. But she evidently had been crying,
crying a great deal--simply, satisfyingly, refreshingly, with a sort of
primitive, retarded sense of loneliness and violence. But she had none
of the formalism or the self-consciousness of grief, and I was almost
surprised to see her standing there in the first dusk with her hands
full of flowers, smiling at me with her reddened eyes. Her white face,
in the frame of her mantilla, looked longer, leaner than usual. I had
had an idea that she would be a good deal disgusted with me--would
consider that I ought to have been on the spot to advise her, to help
her; and, though I was sure there was no rancor in her composition and
no great conviction of the importance of her affairs, I had prepared
myself for a difference in her manner, for some little injured look,
half-familiar, half-estranged, which should say to my conscience, “Well,
you are a nice person to have professed things!” But historic truth
compels me to declare that Tita Bordereau’s countenance expressed
unqualified pleasure in seeing her late aunt’s lodger. That touched him
extremely, and he thought it simplified his situation until he found it
did not. I was as kind to her that evening as I knew how to be, and
I walked about the garden with her for half an hour. There was no
explanation of any sort between us; I did not ask her why she had not
answered my letter. Still less did I repeat what I had said to her
in that communication; if she chose to let me suppose that she had
forgotten the position in which Miss Bordereau surprised me that night
and the effect of the discovery on the old woman I was quite willing to
take it that way: I was grateful to her for not treating me as if I had
killed her aunt.

We strolled and strolled and really not much passed between us save the
recognition of her bereavement, conveyed in my manner and in a visible
air that she had of depending on me now, since I let her see that I took
an interest in her. Miss Tita had none of the pride that makes a person
wish to preserve the look of independence; she did not in the least
pretend that she knew at present what would become of her. I forebore to
touch particularly on that, however, for I certainly was not prepared
to say that I would take charge of her. I was cautious; not ignobly, I
think, for I felt that her knowledge of life was so small that in her
unsophisticated vision there would be no reason why--since I seemed
to pity her--I should not look after her. She told me how her aunt had
died, very peacefully at the last, and how everything had been done
afterward by the care of her good friends (fortunately, thanks to me,
she said, smiling, there was money in the house; and she repeated that
when once the Italians like you they are your friends for life); and
when we had gone into this she asked me about my giro, my impressions,
the places I had seen. I told her what I could, making it up partly, I
am afraid, as in my depression I had not seen much; and after she had
heard me she exclaimed, quite as if she had forgotten her aunt and her
sorrow, “Dear, dear, how much I should like to do such things--to take a
little journey!” It came over me for the moment that I ought to propose
some tour, say I would take her anywhere she liked; and I remarked at
any rate that some excursion--to give her a change--might be managed:
we would think of it, talk it over. I said never a word to her about the
Aspern documents; asked no questions as to what she had ascertained or
what had otherwise happened with regard to them before Miss Bordereau’s
death. It was not that I was not on pins and needles to know, but that
I thought it more decent not to betray my anxiety so soon after the
catastrophe. I hoped she herself would say something, but she never
glanced that way, and I thought this natural at the time. Later however,
that night, it occurred to me that her silence was somewhat strange;
for if she had talked of my movements, of anything so detached as the
Giorgione at Castelfranco, she might have alluded to what she could
easily remember was in my mind. It was not to be supposed that the
emotion produced by her aunt’s death had blotted out the recollection
that I was interested in that lady’s relics, and I fidgeted afterward
as it came to me that her reticence might very possibly mean simply that
nothing had been found. We separated in the garden (it was she who
said she must go in); now that she was alone in the rooms I felt that
(judged, at any rate, by Venetian ideas) I was on rather a different
footing in regard to visiting her there. As I shook hands with her for
goodnight I asked her if she had any general plan--had thought over what
she had better do. “Oh, yes, oh, yes, but I haven’t settled anything
yet,” she replied quite cheerfully. Was her cheerfulness explained by
the impression that I would settle for her?

I was glad the next morning that we had neglected practical questions,
for this gave me a pretext for seeing her again immediately. There was a
very practical question to be touched upon. I owed it to her to let her
know formally that of course I did not expect her to keep me on as a
lodger, and also to show some interest in her own tenure, what she might
have on her hands in the way of a lease. But I was not destined, as it
happened, to converse with her for more than an instant on either of
these points. I sent her no message; I simply went down to the sala and
walked to and fro there. I knew she would come out; she would very soon
discover I was there. Somehow I preferred not to be shut up with her;
gardens and big halls seemed better places to talk. It was a splendid
morning, with something in the air that told of the waning of the long
Venetian summer; a freshness from the sea which stirred the flowers in
the garden and made a pleasant draught in the house, less shuttered and
darkened now than when the old woman was alive. It was the beginning of
autumn, of the end of the golden months. With this it was the end of
my experiment--or would be in the course of half an hour, when I should
really have learned that the papers had been reduced to ashes. After
that there would be nothing left for me but to go to the station; for
seriously (and as it struck me in the morning light) I could not linger
there to act as guardian to a piece of middle-aged female helplessness.
If she had not saved the papers wherein should I be indebted to her?
I think I winced a little as I asked myself how much, if she HAD saved
them, I should have to recognize and, as it were, to reward such
a courtesy. Might not that circumstance after all saddle me with a
guardianship? If this idea did not make me more uncomfortable as I
walked up and down it was because I was convinced I had nothing to look
to. If the old woman had not destroyed everything before she pounced
upon me in the parlor she had done so afterward.

It took Miss Tita rather longer than I had expected to guess that I was
there; but when at last she came out she looked at me without surprise.
I said to her that I had been waiting for her, and she asked why I had
not let her know. I was glad the next day that I had checked myself
before remarking that I had wished to see if a friendly intuition would
not tell her: it became a satisfaction to me that I had not indulged in
that rather tender joke. What I did say was virtually the truth--that I
was too nervous, since I expected her now to settle my fate.

“Your fate?” said Miss Tita, giving me a queer look; and as she spoke I
noticed a rare change in her. She was different from what she had been
the evening before--less natural, less quiet. She had been crying the
day before and she was not crying now, and yet she struck me as less
confident. It was as if something had happened to her during the
night, or at least as if she had thought of something that troubled
her--something in particular that affected her relations with me, made
them more embarrassing and complicated. Had she simply perceived that
her aunt’s not being there now altered my position?

“I mean about our papers. ARE there any? You must know now.”

“Yes, there are a great many; more than I supposed.” I was struck with
the way her voice trembled as she told me this.

“Do you mean that you have got them in there--and that I may see them?”

“I don’t think you can see them,” said Miss Tita with an extraordinary
expression of entreaty in her eyes, as if the dearest hope she had in
the world now was that I would not take them from her. But how could
she expect me to make such a sacrifice as that after all that had passed
between us? What had I come back to Venice for but to see them, to take
them? My delight in learning they were still in existence was such that
if the poor woman had gone down on her knees to beseech me never to
mention them again I would have treated the proceeding as a bad joke. “I
have got them but I can’t show them,” she added.

“Not even to me? Ah, Miss Tita!” I groaned, with a voice of infinite
remonstrance and reproach.

She colored, and the tears came back to her eyes; I saw that it cost her
a kind of anguish to take such a stand but that a dreadful sense of duty
had descended upon her. It made me quite sick to find myself confronted
with that particular obstacle; all the more that it appeared to me I
had been extremely encouraged to leave it out of account. I almost
considered that Miss Tita had assured me that if she had no greater
hindrance than that--! “You don’t mean to say you made her a deathbed
promise? It was precisely against your doing anything of that sort
that I thought I was safe. Oh, I would rather she had burned the papers
outright than that!”

“No, it isn’t a promise,” said Miss Tita.

“Pray what is it then?”

She hesitated and then she said, “She tried to burn them, but I
prevented it. She had hid them in her bed.”

“In her bed?”

“Between the mattresses. That’s where she put them when she took them
out of the trunk. I can’t understand how she did it, because Olimpia
didn’t help her. She tells me so, and I believe her. My aunt only told
her afterward, so that she shouldn’t touch the bed--anything but the
sheets. So it was badly made,” added Miss Tita simply.

“I should think so! And how did she try to burn them?”

“She didn’t try much; she was too weak, those last days. But she told
me--she charged me. Oh, it was terrible! She couldn’t speak after that
night; she could only make signs.”

“And what did you do?”

“I took them away. I locked them up.”

“In the secretary?”

“Yes, in the secretary,” said Miss Tita, reddening again.

“Did you tell her you would burn them?”

“No, I didn’t--on purpose.”

“On purpose to gratify me?”

“Yes, only for that.”

“And what good will you have done me if after all you won’t show them?”

“Oh, none; I know that--I know that.”

“And did she believe you had destroyed them?”

“I don’t know what she believed at the last. I couldn’t tell--she was
too far gone.”

“Then if there was no promise and no assurance I can’t see what ties
you.”

“Oh, she hated it so--she hated it so! She was so jealous. But here’s
the portrait--you may have that,” Miss Tita announced, taking the little
picture, wrapped up in the same manner in which her aunt had wrapped it,
out of her pocket.

“I may have it--do you mean you give it to me?” I questioned, staring,
as it passed into my hand.

“Oh, yes.”

“But it’s worth money--a large sum.”

“Well!” said Miss Tita, still with her strange look.

I did not know what to make of it, for it could scarcely mean that she
wanted to bargain like her aunt. She spoke as if she wished to make me a
present. “I can’t take it from you as a gift,” I said, “and yet I can’t
afford to pay you for it according to the ideas Miss Bordereau had of
its value. She rated it at a thousand pounds.”

“Couldn’t we sell it?” asked Miss Tita.

“God forbid! I prefer the picture to the money.”

“Well then keep it.”

“You are very generous.”

“So are you.”

“I don’t know why you should think so,” I replied; and this was a
truthful speech, for the singular creature appeared to have some very
fine reference in her mind, which I did not in the least seize.

“Well, you have made a great difference for me,” said Miss Tita.

I looked at Jeffrey Aspern’s face in the little picture, partly in order
not to look at that of my interlocutress, which had begun to trouble me,
even to frighten me a little--it was so self-conscious, so unnatural.
I made no answer to this last declaration; I only privately consulted
Jeffrey Aspern’s delightful eyes with my own (they were so young and
brilliant, and yet so wise, so full of vision); I asked him what on
earth was the matter with Miss Tita. He seemed to smile at me with
friendly mockery, as if he were amused at my case. I had got into a
pickle for him--as if he needed it! He was unsatisfactory, for the only
moment since I had known him. Nevertheless, now that I held the little
picture in my hand I felt that it would be a precious possession. “Is
this a bribe to make me give up the papers?” I demanded in a moment,
perversely. “Much as I value it, if I were to be obliged to choose, the
papers are what I should prefer. Ah, but ever so much!”

“How can you choose--how can you choose?” Miss Tita asked, slowly,
lamentably.

“I see! Of course there is nothing to be said, if you regard the
interdiction that rests upon you as quite insurmountable. In this case
it must seem to you that to part with them would be an impiety of the
worst kind, a simple sacrilege!”

Miss Tita shook her head, full of her dolefulness. “You would understand
if you had known her. I’m afraid,” she quavered suddenly--“I’m afraid!
She was terrible when she was angry.”

“Yes, I saw something of that, that night. She was terrible. Then I saw
her eyes. Lord, they were fine!”

“I see them--they stare at me in the dark!” said Miss Tita.

“You are nervous, with all you have been through.”

“Oh, yes, very--very!”

“You mustn’t mind; that will pass away,” I said, kindly. Then I added,
resignedly, for it really seemed to me that I must accept the situation,
“Well, so it is, and it can’t be helped. I must renounce.” Miss Tita, at
this, looking at me, gave a low, soft moan, and I went on: “I only wish
to heaven she had destroyed them; then there would be nothing more to
say. And I can’t understand why, with her ideas, she didn’t.”

“Oh, she lived on them!” said Miss Tita.

“You can imagine whether that makes me want less to see them,” I
answered, smiling. “But don’t let me stand here as if I had it in my
soul to tempt you to do anything base. Naturally you will understand if
I give up my rooms. I leave Venice immediately.” And I took up my hat,
which I had placed on a chair. We were still there rather awkwardly,
on our feet, in the middle of the sala. She had left the door of the
apartments open behind her but she had not led me that way.

A kind of spasm came into her face as she saw me take my hat.
“Immediately--do you mean today?” The tone of the words was
tragical--they were a cry of desolation.

“Oh, no; not so long as I can be of the least service to you.”

“Well, just a day or two more--just two or three days,” she panted. Then
controlling herself, she added in another manner, “She wanted to say
something to me--the last day--something very particular, but she
couldn’t.”

“Something very particular?”

“Something more about the papers.”

“And did you guess--have you any idea?”

“No, I have thought--but I don’t know. I have thought all kinds of
things.”

“And for instance?”

“Well, that if you were a relation it would be different.”

“If I were a relation?”

“If you were not a stranger. Then it would be the same for you as for
me. Anything that is mine--would be yours, and you could do what you
like. I couldn’t prevent you--and you would have no responsibility.”

She brought out this droll explanation with a little nervous rush, as if
she were speaking words she had got by heart. They gave me an impression
of subtlety and at first I failed to follow. But after a moment her face
helped me to see further, and then a light came into my mind. It was
embarrassing, and I bent my head over Jeffrey Aspern’s portrait. What
an odd expression was in his face! “Get out of it as you can, my dear
fellow!” I put the picture into the pocket of my coat and said to Miss
Tita, “Yes, I’ll sell it for you. I shan’t get a thousand pounds by any
means, but I shall get something good.”

She looked at me with tears in her eyes, but she seemed to try to smile
as she remarked, “We can divide the money.”

“No, no, it shall be all yours.” Then I went on, “I think I know what
your poor aunt wanted to say. She wanted to give directions that her
papers should be buried with her.”

Miss Tita appeared to consider this suggestion for a moment; after which
she declared, with striking decision, “Oh no, she wouldn’t have thought
that safe!”

“It seems to me nothing could be safer.”

“She had an idea that when people want to publish they are capable--”
 And she paused, blushing.

“Of violating a tomb? Mercy on us, what must she have thought of me!”

“She was not just, she was not generous!” Miss Tita cried with sudden
passion.

The light that had come into my mind a moment before increased. “Ah,
don’t say that, for we ARE a dreadful race.” Then I pursued, “If she
left a will, that may give you some idea.”

“I have found nothing of the sort--she destroyed it. She was very fond
of me,” Miss Tita added incongruously. “She wanted me to be happy. And
if any person should be kind to me--she wanted to speak of that.”

I was almost awestricken at the astuteness with which the good lady
found herself inspired, transparent astuteness as it was and sewn, as
the phrase is, with white thread. “Depend upon it she didn’t want to
make any provision that would be agreeable to me.”

“No, not to you but to me. She knew I should like it if you could carry
out your idea. Not because she cared for you but because she did think
of me,” Miss Tita went on with her unexpected, persuasive volubility.
“You could see them--you could use them.” She stopped, seeing that I
perceived the sense of that conditional--stopped long enough for me
to give some sign which I did not give. She must have been conscious,
however, that though my face showed the greatest embarrassment that was
ever painted on a human countenance it was not set as a stone, it was
also full of compassion. It was a comfort to me a long time afterward
to consider that she could not have seen in me the smallest symptom
of disrespect. “I don’t know what to do; I’m too tormented, I’m too
ashamed!” she continued with vehemence. Then turning away from me and
burying her face in her hands she burst into a flood of tears. If she
did not know what to do it may be imagined whether I did any better.
I stood there dumb, watching her while her sobs resounded in the great
empty hall. In a moment she was facing me again, with her streaming
eyes. “I would give you everything--and she would understand, where she
is--she would forgive me!”

“Ah, Miss Tita--ah, Miss Tita,” I stammered, for all reply. I did
not know what to do, as I say, but at a venture I made a wild, vague
movement in consequence of which I found myself at the door. I remember
standing there and saying, “It wouldn’t do--it wouldn’t do!” pensively,
awkwardly, grotesquely, while I looked away to the opposite end of the
sala as if there were a beautiful view there. The next thing I remember
is that I was downstairs and out of the house. My gondola was there and
my gondolier, reclining on the cushions, sprang up as soon as he saw me.
I jumped in and to his usual “Dove commanda?” I replied, in a tone that
made him stare, “Anywhere, anywhere; out into the lagoon!”

He rowed me away and I sat there prostrate, groaning softly to myself,
with my hat pulled over my face. What in the name of the preposterous
did she mean if she did not mean to offer me her hand? That was the
price--that was the price! And did she think I wanted it, poor deluded,
infatuated, extravagant lady? My gondolier, behind me, must have seen my
ears red as I wondered, sitting there under the fluttering tenda, with
my hidden face, noticing nothing as we passed--wondered whether her
delusion, her infatuation had been my own reckless work. Did she think
I had made love to her, even to get the papers? I had not, I had not;
I repeated that over to myself for an hour, for two hours, till I was
wearied if not convinced. I don’t know where my gondolier took me; we
floated aimlessly about in the lagoon, with slow, rare strokes. At last
I became conscious that we were near the Lido, far up, on the right
hand, as you turn your back to Venice, and I made him put me ashore. I
wanted to walk, to move, to shed some of my bewilderment. I crossed the
narrow strip and got to the sea beach--I took my way toward Malamocco.
But presently I flung myself down again on the warm sand, in the breeze,
on the coarse dry grass. It took it out of me to think I had been
so much at fault, that I had unwittingly but nonetheless deplorably
trifled. But I had not given her cause--distinctly I had not. I had
said to Mrs. Prest that I would make love to her; but it had been a joke
without consequences and I had never said it to Tita Bordereau. I had
been as kind as possible, because I really liked her; but since when had
that become a crime where a woman of such an age and such an appearance
was concerned? I am far from remembering clearly the succession of
events and feelings during this long day of confusion, which I spent
entirely in wandering about, without going home, until late at night;
it only comes back to me that there were moments when I pacified my
conscience and others when I lashed it into pain. I did not laugh all
day--that I do recollect; the case, however it might have struck others,
seemed to me so little amusing. It would have been better perhaps for me
to feel the comic side of it. At any rate, whether I had given cause or
not it went without saying that I could not pay the price. I could
not accept. I could not, for a bundle of tattered papers, marry a
ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman. It was a proof that she did
not think the idea would come to me, her having determined to suggest
it herself in that practical, argumentative, heroic way, in which the
timidity however had been so much more striking than the boldness that
her reasons appeared to come first and her feelings afterward.

As the day went on I grew to wish that I had never heard of Aspern’s
relics, and I cursed the extravagant curiosity that had put John Cumnor
on the scent of them. We had more than enough material without them,
and my predicament was the just punishment of that most fatal of human
follies, our not having known when to stop. It was very well to say
it was no predicament, that the way out was simple, that I had only to
leave Venice by the first train in the morning, after writing a note to
Miss Tita, to be placed in her hand as soon as I got clear of the house;
for it was a strong sign that I was embarrassed that when I tried to
make up the note in my mind in advance (I would put it on paper as soon
as I got home, before going to bed), I could not think of anything but
“How can I thank you for the rare confidence you have placed in me?”
 That would never do; it sounded exactly as if an acceptance were to
follow. Of course I might go away without writing a word, but that
would be brutal and my idea was still to exclude brutal solutions. As my
confusion cooled I was lost in wonder at the importance I had attached
to Miss Bordereau’s crumpled scraps; the thought of them became odious
to me, and I was as vexed with the old witch for the superstition that
had prevented her from destroying them as I was with myself for having
already spent more money than I could afford in attempting to control
their fate. I forget what I did, where I went after leaving the Lido and
at what hour or with what recovery of composure I made my way back to my
boat. I only know that in the afternoon, when the air was aglow with
the sunset, I was standing before the church of Saints John and Paul and
looking up at the small square-jawed face of Bartolommeo Colleoni, the
terrible condottiere who sits so sturdily astride of his huge bronze
horse, on the high pedestal on which Venetian gratitude maintains him.
The statue is incomparable, the finest of all mounted figures, unless
that of Marcus Aurelius, who rides benignant before the Roman Capitol,
be finer: but I was not thinking of that; I only found myself staring at
the triumphant captain as if he had an oracle on his lips. The western
light shines into all his grimness at that hour and makes it wonderfully
personal. But he continued to look far over my head, at the red
immersion of another day--he had seen so many go down into the lagoon
through the centuries--and if he were thinking of battles and stratagems
they were of a different quality from any I had to tell him of. He could
not direct me what to do, gaze up at him as I might. Was it before this
or after that I wandered about for an hour in the small canals, to
the continued stupefaction of my gondolier, who had never seen me so
restless and yet so void of a purpose and could extract from me no order
but “Go anywhere--everywhere--all over the place”? He reminded me that
I had not lunched and expressed therefore respectfully the hope that I
would dine earlier. He had had long periods of leisure during the day,
when I had left the boat and rambled, so that I was not obliged to
consider him, and I told him that that day, for a change, I would touch
no meat. It was an effect of poor Miss Tita’s proposal, not altogether
auspicious, that I had quite lost my appetite. I don’t know why it
happened that on this occasion I was more than ever struck with that
queer air of sociability, of cousinship and family life, which makes up
half the expression of Venice. Without streets and vehicles, the uproar
of wheels, the brutality of horses, and with its little winding ways
where people crowd together, where voices sound as in the corridors of
a house, where the human step circulates as if it skirted the angles of
furniture and shoes never wear out, the place has the character of an
immense collective apartment, in which Piazza San Marco is the most
ornamented corner and palaces and churches, for the rest, play the
part of great divans of repose, tables of entertainment, expanses
of decoration. And somehow the splendid common domicile, familiar,
domestic, and resonant, also resembles a theater, with actors clicking
over bridges and, in straggling processions, tripping along fondamentas.
As you sit in your gondola the footways that in certain parts edge the
canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage, meeting it at the
same angle, and the Venetian figures, moving to and fro against the
battered scenery of their little houses of comedy, strike you as members
of an endless dramatic troupe.

I went to bed that night very tired, without being able to compose a
letter to Miss Tita. Was this failure the reason why I became conscious
the next morning as soon as I awoke of a determination to see the poor
lady again the first moment she would receive me? That had something to
do with it, but what had still more was the fact that during my sleep a
very odd revulsion had taken place in my spirit. I found myself aware of
this almost as soon as I opened my eyes; it made me jump out of my bed
with the movement of a man who remembers that he has left the house door
ajar or a candle burning under a shelf. Was I still in time to save my
goods? That question was in my heart; for what had now come to pass
was that in the unconscious cerebration of sleep I had swung back to a
passionate appreciation of Miss Bordereau’s papers. They were now more
precious than ever, and a kind of ferocity had come into my desire to
possess them. The condition Miss Tita had attached to the possession of
them no longer appeared an obstacle worth thinking of, and for an hour,
that morning, my repentant imagination brushed it aside. It was absurd
that I should be able to invent nothing; absurd to renounce so easily
and turn away helpless from the idea that the only way to get hold of
the papers was to unite myself to her for life. I would not unite myself
and yet I would have them. I must add that by the time I sent down to
ask if she would see me I had invented no alternative, though to do so I
had had all the time that I was dressing. This failure was humiliating,
yet what could the alternative be? Miss Tita sent back word that I
might come; and as I descended the stairs and crossed the sala to her
door--this time she received me in her aunt’s forlorn parlor--I hoped
she would not think my errand was to tell her I accepted her hand. She
certainly would have made the day before the reflection that I declined
it.

As soon as I came into the room I saw that she had drawn this inference,
but I also saw something which had not been in my forecast. Poor Miss
Tita’s sense of her failure had produced an extraordinary alteration in
her, but I had been too full of my literary concupiscence to think of
that. Now I perceived it; I can scarcely tell how it startled me. She
stood in the middle of the room with a face of mildness bent upon
me, and her look of forgiveness, of absolution, made her angelic. It
beautified her; she was younger; she was not a ridiculous old woman.
This optical trick gave her a sort of phantasmagoric brightness, and
while I was still the victim of it I heard a whisper somewhere in the
depths of my conscience: “Why not, after all--why not?” It seemed to
me I was ready to pay the price. Still more distinctly however than
the whisper I heard Miss Tita’s own voice. I was so struck with the
different effect she made upon me that at first I was not clearly aware
of what she was saying; then I perceived she had bade me goodbye--she
said something about hoping I should be very happy.

“Goodbye--goodbye?” I repeated with an inflection interrogative and
probably foolish.

I saw she did not feel the interrogation, she only heard the words; she
had strung herself up to accepting our separation and they fell upon
her ear as a proof. “Are you going today?” she asked. “But it doesn’t
matter, for whenever you go I shall not see you again. I don’t want to.”
 And she smiled strangely, with an infinite gentleness. She had never
doubted that I had left her the day before in horror. How could she,
since I had not come back before night to contradict, even as a simple
form, such an idea? And now she had the force of soul--Miss Tita with
force of soul was a new conception--to smile at me in her humiliation.

“What shall you do--where shall you go?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. I have done the great thing. I have destroyed the
papers.”

“Destroyed them?” I faltered.

“Yes; what was I to keep them for? I burned them last night, one by one,
in the kitchen.”

“One by one?” I repeated, mechanically.

“It took a long time--there were so many.” The room seemed to go round
me as she said this, and a real darkness for a moment descended upon my
eyes. When it passed Miss Tita was there still, but the transfiguration
was over and she had changed back to a plain, dingy, elderly person.
It was in this character she spoke as she said, “I can’t stay with you
longer, I can’t;” and it was in this character that she turned her back
upon me, as I had turned mine upon her twenty-four hours before, and
moved to the door of her room. Here she did what I had not done when I
quitted her--she paused long enough to give me one look. I have never
forgotten it and I sometimes still suffer from it, though it was not
resentful. No, there was no resentment, nothing hard or vindictive in
poor Miss Tita; for when, later, I sent her in exchange for the portrait
of Jeffrey Aspern a larger sum of money than I had hoped to be able to
gather for her, writing to her that I had sold the picture, she kept it
with thanks; she never sent it back. I wrote to her that I had sold the
picture, but I admitted to Mrs. Prest, at the time (I met her in London,
in the autumn), that it hangs above my writing table. When I look at it
my chagrin at the loss of the letters becomes almost intolerable.





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