The Aspern Papers, by Henry James
Part 1 out of 3
The text is that of the first American book edition, Macmillan and Co., 1888.
THE ASPERN PAPERS
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!"
"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 s 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.
"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 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.
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.
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.
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,
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