The Aspern Papers, by Henry James
Part 2 out of 3
promptly, struck again with her disposition to make a "good thing"
of being there and wondering what she now had in her eye, she broke out,
"Why don't you take that girl out in it and show her the place?"
"Oh, dear Aunt, what do you want to do with me?" cried the "girl"
with a piteous quaver. "I know all about the place!"
"Well then, go with him as a cicerone!" said Miss Bordereau
with an effort of something like cruelty in her implacable
power of retort--an incongruous suggestion that she was
a sarcastic, profane, cynical old woman. "Haven't we heard
that there have been all sorts of changes in all these years?
You ought to see them and at your age (I don't mean because
you're so young) you ought to take the chances that come.
You're old enough, my dear, and this gentleman won't hurt you.
He will show you the famous sunsets, if they still go
on--DO they go on? The sun set for me so long ago.
But that's not a reason. Besides, I shall never miss you;
you think you are too important. Take her to the Piazza;
it used to be very pretty," Miss Bordereau continued, addressing
herself to me. "What have they done with the funny old church?
I hope it hasn't tumbled down. let her look at the shops;
she may take some money, she may buy what she likes."
Poor Miss Tita had got up, discountenanced and helpless, and as we stood
there before her aunt it would certainly have seemed to a spectator
of the scene that the old woman was amusing herself at our expense.
Miss Tita protested, in a confusion of exclamations and murmurs;
but I lost no time in saying that if she would do me the honor to accept
the hospitality of my boat I would engage that she should not be bored.
Or if she did not want so much of my company the boat itself,
with the gondolier, was at her service; he was a capital oar
and she might have every confidence. Miss Tita, without definitely
answering this speech, looked away from me, out of the window,
as if she were going to cry; and I remarked that once we had Miss
Bordereau's approval we could easily come to an understanding.
We would take an hour, whichever she liked, one of the very next days.
As I made my obeisance to the old lady I asked her if she would
kindly permit me to see her again.
For a moment she said nothing; then she inquired, "Is it very necessary
to your happiness?"
"It diverts me more than I can say."
"You are wonderfully civil. Don't you know it almost kills ME?"
"How can I believe that when I see you more animated, more brilliant
than when I came in?"
"That is very true, Aunt," said Miss Tita. I think it does you good."
"Isn't it touching, the solicitude we each have that
the other shall enjoy herself?" sneered Miss Bordereau.
"If you think me brilliant today you don't know what you
are talking about; you have never seen an agreeable woman.
Don't try to pay me a compliment; I have been spoiled," she went on.
"My door is shut, but you may sometimes knock."
With this she dismissed me, and I left the room.
The latch closed behind me, but Miss Tita, contrary to my hope,
had remained within. I passed slowly across the hall
and before taking my way downstairs I waited a little.
My hope was answered; after a minute Miss Tita followed me.
"That's a delightful idea about the Piazza," I said.
"When will you go--tonight, tomorrow?"
She had been disconcerted, as I have mentioned, but I had
already perceived and I was to observe again that when Miss Tita
was embarrassed she did not (as most women would have done)
turn away from you and try to escape, but came closer, as it were,
with a deprecating, clinging appeal to be spared, to be protected.
Her attitude was perpetually a sort of prayer for assistance,
for explanation; and yet no woman in the world could have been
less of a comedian. From the moment you were kind to her she
depended on you absolutely; her self-consciousness dropped from
her and she took the greatest intimacy, the innocent intimacy
which was the only thing she could conceive, for granted.
She told me she did not know what had got into her aunt;
she had changed so quickly, she had got some idea. I replied
that she must find out what the idea was and then let me know;
we would go and have an ice together at Florian's, and she
should tell me while we listened to the band.
"Oh, it will take me a long time to find out!" she said, rather ruefully;
and she could promise me this satisfaction neither for that night nor for
the next. I was patient now, however, for I felt that I had only to wait;
and in fact at the end of the week, one lovely evening after dinner,
she stepped into my gondola, to which in honor of the occasion I had
attached a second oar.
We swept in the course of five minutes into the Grand Canal;
whereupon she uttered a murmur of ecstasy as fresh as if she
had been a tourist just arrived. She had forgotten how splendid
the great waterway looked on a clear, hot summer evening,
and how the sense of floating between marble palaces and
reflected lights disposed the mind to sympathetic talk.
We floated long and far, and though Miss Tita gave no high-pitched
voice to her satisfaction I felt that she surrendered herself.
She was more than pleased, she was transported; the whole thing
was an immense liberation. The gondola moved with slow strokes,
to give her time to enjoy it, and she listened to the plash
of the oars, which grew louder and more musically liquid as we
passed into narrow canals, as if it were a revelation of Venice.
When I asked her how long it was since she had been in a boat
she answered, "Oh, I don't know; a long time--not since my aunt
began to be ill." This was not the only example she gave me
of her extreme vagueness about the previous years and the line
which marked off the period when Miss Bordereau flourished.
I was not at liberty to keep her out too long, but we
took a considerable GIRL before going to the Piazza.
I asked her no questions, keeping the conversation on purpose
away from her domestic situation and the things I wanted to know;
I poured treasures of information about Venice into her ears,
described Florence and Rome, discoursed to her on the charms
and advantages of travel. She reclined, receptive, on the deep
leather cushions, turned her eyes conscientiously to everything
I pointed out to her, and never mentioned to me till sometime
afterward that she might be supposed to know Florence better
than I, as she had lived there for years with Miss Bordereau.
At last she asked, with the shy impatience of a child, "Are we
not really going to the Piazza? That's what I want to see!"
I immediately gave the order that we should go straight;
and then we sat silent with the expectation of arrival.
As some time still passed, however, she said suddenly, of her
own movement, "I have found out what is the matter with my aunt:
she is afraid you will go!"
"What has put that into her head?"
"She has had an idea you have not been happy. That is why
she is different now."
"You mean she wants to make me happier?"
"Well, she wants you not to go; she wants you to stay."
"I suppose you mean on account of the rent," I remarked candidly.
Miss Tita's candor showed itself a match for my own.
"Yes, you know; so that I shall have more."
"How much does she want you to have?" I asked, laughing.
"She ought to fix the sum, so that I may stay till it's made up."
"Oh, that wouldn't please me," said Miss Tita. "It would be unheard of,
your taking that trouble."
"But suppose I should have my own reasons for staying in Venice?"
"Then it would be better for you to stay in some other house."
"And what would your aunt say to that?"
"She wouldn't like it at all. But I should think you would do well to give
up your reasons and go away altogether."
"Dear Miss Tita," I said, "it's not so easy to give them up!"
She made no immediate answer to this, but after a moment she broke out:
"I think I know what your reasons are!"
"I daresay, because the other night I almost told you how I wish
you would help me to make them good."
"I can't do that without being false to my aunt."
"What do you mean, being false to her?"
"Why, she would never consent to what you want. She has been asked,
she has been written to. It made her fearfully angry."
"Then she HAS got papers of value?" I demanded quickly.
"Oh, she has got everything!" sighed Miss Tita with a curious weariness,
a sudden lapse into gloom.
These words caused all my pulses to throb, for I regarded them
as precious evidence. For some minutes I was too agitated to speak,
and in the interval the gondola approached the Piazzetta.
After we had disembarked I asked my companion whether she would
rather walk round the square or go and sit at the door of the cafe;
to which she replied that she would do whichever I liked best--
I must only remember again how little time she had. I assured her there
was plenty to do both, and we made the circuit of the long arcades.
Her spirits revived at the sight of the bright shop windows, and she
lingered and stopped, admiring or disapproving of their contents,
asking me what I thought of things, theorizing about prices.
My attention wandered from her; her words of a while before,
"Oh, she has got everything!" echoed so in my consciousness.
We sat down at last in the crowded circle at Florian's, finding
an unoccupied table among those that were ranged in the square.
It was a splendid night and all the world was out-of-doors;
Miss Tita could not have wished the elements more auspicuous for
her return to society. I saw that she enjoyed it even more than
she told; she was agitated with the multitude of her impressions.
She had forgotten what an attractive thing the world is,
and it was coming over her that somehow she had for the best years
of her life been cheated of it. This did not make her angry;
but as she looked all over the charming scene her face had, in spite
of its smile of appreciation, the flush of a sort of wounded surprise.
She became silent, as if she were thinking with a secret sadness
of opportunities, forever lost, which ought to have been easy;
and this gave me a chance to say to her, "Did you mean a while ago
that your aunt has a plan of keeping me on by admitting me occasionally
to her presence?"
"She thinks it will make a difference with you if you sometimes see her.
She wants you so much to stay that she is willing to make that concession."
"And what good does she consider that I think it will do me to see her?"
"I don't know; she thinks it's interesting," said Miss Tita simply.
"You told her you found it so."
"So I did; but everyone doesn't think so."
"No, of course not, or more people would try."
"Well, if she is capable of making that reflection she
is capable of making this further one," I went on:
"that I must have a particular reason for not doing as others do,
in spite of the interest she offers--for not leaving her alone."
Miss Tita looked as if she failed to grasp this rather
complicated proposition; so I continued, "If you have not told
her what I said to you the other night may she not at least
have guessed it?"
"I don't know; she is very suspicious."
"But she has not been made so by indiscreet curiosity, by persecution?"
"No, no; it isn't that," said Miss Tita, turning on me
a somewhat troubled face. "I don't know how to say it:
it's on account of something--ages ago, before I was born--
in her life."
"Something? What sort of thing?" I asked as if I myself could
have no idea.
"Oh, she has never told me," Miss Tita answered; and I was sure
she was speaking the truth.
Her extreme limpidity was almost provoking, and I felt for the moment
that she would have been more satisfactory if she had been less ingenuous.
"Do you suppose it's something to which Jeffrey Aspern's letters and papers--
I mean the things in her possession--have reference?"
"I daresay it is!" my companion exclaimed as if this were a very
happy suggestion. "I have never looked at any of those things."
"None of them? Then how do you know what they are?"
"I don't," said Miss Tita placidly. "I have never had them in my hands.
But I have seen them when she has had them out."
"Does she have them out often?"
"Not now, but she used to. She is very fond of them."
"In spite of their being compromising?"
"Compromising?" Miss Tita repeated as if she was ignorant of the meaning
of the word. I felt almost as one who corrupts the innocence of youth.
"I mean their containing painful memories."
"Oh, I don't think they are painful."
"You mean you don't think they affect her reputation?"
At this a singular look came into the face of Miss
Bordereau's niece--a kind of confession of helplessness,
an appeal to me to deal fairly, generously with her.
I had brought her to the Piazza, placed her among charming
influences, paid her an attention she appreciated, and now I
seemed to let her perceive that all this had been a bribe--
a bribe to make her turn in some way against her aunt.
She was of a yielding nature and capable of doing almost anything
to please a person who was kind to her; but the greatest
kindness of all would be not to presume too much on this.
It was strange enough, as I afterward thought, that she
had not the least air of resenting my want of consideration
for her aunt's character, which would have been in the worst
possible taste if anything less vital (from my point of view)
had been at stake. I don't think she really measured it.
"Do you mean that she did something bad?" she asked in a moment.
"Heaven forbid I should say so, and it's none of my business.
Besides, if she did," I added, laughing, "it was in other ages,
in another world. But why should she not destroy her papers?"
"Oh, she loves them too much."
"Even now, when she may be near her end?"
"Perhaps when she's sure of that she will."
"Well, Miss Tita," I said, "it's just what I should like you to prevent."
"How can I prevent it?"
"Couldn't you get them away from her?"
"And give them to you?"
This put the case very crudely, though I am sure there was no irony
in her intention. "Oh, I mean that you might let me see them and look
them over. It isn't for myself; there is no personal avidity in my desire.
It is simply that they would be of such immense interest to the public,
such immeasurable importance as a contribution to Jeffrey Aspern's history."
She listened to me in her usual manner, as if my speech were full of
reference to things she had never heard of, and I felt particularly like
the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.
This was especially the case when after a moment she said. "There was
a gentleman who some time ago wrote to her in very much those words.
He also wanted her papers."
"And did she answer him?" I asked, rather ashamed of myself
for not having her rectitude.
"Only when he had written two or three times. He made her very angry."
"And what did she say?"
"She said he was a devil," Miss Tita replied simply.
"She used that expression in her letter?"
"Oh, no; she said it to me. She made me write to him."
"And what did you say?"
"I told him there were no papers at all."
"Ah, poor gentleman!" I exclaimed.
"I knew there were, but I wrote what she bade me."
"Of course you had to do that. But I hope I shall not pass for a devil."
"It will depend upon what you ask me to do for you,"
said Miss Tita, smiling.
"Oh, if there is a chance of YOUR thinking so my affair is in a bad way!
I shan't ask you to steal for me, nor even to fib--for you can't fib,
unless on paper. But the principal thing is this--to prevent her from
destroying the papers."
"Why, I have no control of her," said Miss Tita.
"It's she who controls me."
"But she doesn't control her own arms and legs, does she?
The way she would naturally destroy her letters would be to burn them.
Now she can't burn them without fire, and she can't get fire unless
you give it to her."
"I have always done everything she has asked," my companion rejoined.
"Besides, there's Olimpia."
I was on the point of saying that Olimpia was probably corruptible,
but I thought it best not to sound that note. So I simply inquired
if that faithful domestic could not be managed.
"Everyone can be managed by my aunt," said Miss Tita.
And then she observed that her holiday was over; she must go home.
I laid my hand on her arm, across the table, to stay her a moment.
"What I want of you is a general promise to help me."
"Oh, how can I--how can I?" she asked, wondering and troubled.
She was half-surprised, half-frightened at my wishing to make
her play an active part.
"This is the main thing: to watch her carefully and warn me in time,
before she commits that horrible sacrilege."
"I can't watch her when she makes me go out."
"That's very true."
"And when you do, too."
"Mercy on us; do you think she will have done anything tonight?"
"I don't know; she is very cunning."
"Are you trying to frighten me?" I asked.
I felt this inquiry sufficiently answered when my companion
murmured in a musing, almost envious way, "Oh, but she loves them--
she loves them!"
This reflection, repeated with such emphasis, gave me great comfort;
but to obtain more of that balm I said, "If she shouldn't intend
to destroy the objects we speak of before her death she will probably
have made some disposition by will."
"Hasn't she made a will for your benefit?"
"Why, she has so little to leave. That's why she likes money,"
said Miss Tita.
"Might I ask, since we are really talking things over,
what you and she live on?"
"On some money that comes from America, from a lawyer.
He sends it every quarter. It isn't much!"
"And won't she have disposed of that?"
My companion hesitated--I saw she was blushing.
"I believe it's mine," she said; and the look and tone which
accompanied these words betrayed so the absence of the habit
of thinking of herself that I almost thought her charming.
The next instant she added, "But she had a lawyer once,
ever so long ago. And some people came and signed something."
"They were probably witnesses. And you were not asked to sign?
Well then," I argued rapidly and hopefully, "it is because you
are the legatee; she has left all her documents to you!"
"If she has it's with very strict conditions," Miss Tita responded,
rising quickly, while the movement gave the words a little character
of decision. They seemed to imply that the bequest would be accompanied
with a command that the articles bequeathed should remain concealed
from every inquisitive eye and that I was very much mistaken if I thought
she was the person to depart from an injunction so solemn.
"Oh, of course you will have to abide by the terms," I said;
and she uttered nothing to mitigate the severity of this conclusion.
Nonetheless, later, just before we disembarked at her own door,
on our return, which had taken place almost in silence,
she said to me abruptly, "I will do what I can to help you."
I was grateful for this--it was very well so far as it went;
but it did not keep me from remembering that night in a worried
waking hour that I now had her word for it to reinforce my own
impression that the old woman was very cunning.
The fear of what this side of her character might have led
her to do made me nervous for days afterward. I waited for an
intimation from Miss Tita; I almost figured to myself that it
was her duty to keep me informed, to let me know definitely
whether or no Miss Bordereau had sacrificed her treasures.
But as she gave no sign I lost patience and determined
to judge so far as was possible with my own senses.
I sent late one afternoon to ask if I might pay the ladies
a visit, and my servant came back with surprising news.
Miss Bordereau could be approached without the least difficulty;
she had been moved out into the sala and was
sitting by the window that overlooked the garden.
I descended and found this picture correct; the old lady
had been wheeled forth into the world and had a certain air,
which came mainly perhaps from some brighter element in
her dress, of being prepared again to have converse with it.
It had not yet, however, begun to flock about her;
she was perfectly alone and, though the door leading to her own
quarters stood open, I had at first no glimpse of Miss Tita.
The window at which she sat had the afternoon shade and,
one of the shutters having been pushed back, she could see
the pleasant garden, where the summer sun had by this time
dried up too many of the plants--she could see the yellow
light and the long shadows.
"Have you come to tell me that you will take the rooms
for six months more?" she asked as I approached her,
startling me by something coarse in her cupidity almost
as much as if she had not already given me a specimen of it.
Juliana's desire to make our acquaintance lucrative had been,
as I have sufficiently indicated, a false note in my image
of the woman who had inspired a great poet with immortal lines;
but I may say here definitely that I recognized after all
that it behooved me to make a large allowance for her.
It was I who had kindled the unholy flame; it was I who had
put into her head that she had the means of making money.
She appeared never to have thought of that; she had been
living wastefully for years, in a house five times too
big for her, on a footing that I could explain only by
the presumption that, excessive as it was, the space she
enjoyed cost her next to nothing and that small as were her
revenues they left her, for Venice, an appreciable margin.
I had descended on her one day and taught her to calculate,
and my almost extravagant comedy on the subject of the garden
had presented me irresistibly in the light of a victim.
Like all persons who achieve the miracle of changing their point
of view when they are old she had been intensely converted;
she had seized my hint with a desperate, tremulous clutch.
I invited myself to go and get one of the chairs that stood, at a distance,
against the wall (she had given herself no concern as to whether I
should sit or stand); and while I placed it near her I began, gaily,
"Oh, dear madam, what an imagination you have, what an intellectual sweep!
I am a poor devil of a man of letters who lives from day to day.
How can I take palaces by the year? My existence is precarious.
I don't know whether six months hence I shall have bread to put in my mouth.
I have treated myself for once; it has been an immense luxury.
But when it comes to going on--!"
"Are your rooms too dear? If they are you can have more for the same money,"
Juliana responded. "We can arrange, we can combinare, as they say here."
"Well yes, since you ask me, they are too dear," I said.
"Evidently you suppose me richer than I am."
She looked at me in her barricaded way. "If you write books
don't you sell them?"
"Do you mean don't people buy them? A little--not so much as I could wish.
Writing books, unless one be a great genius--and even then!--is the last road
to fortune. I think there is no more money to be made by literature."
"Perhaps you don't choose good subjects. What do you write about?"
Miss Bordereau inquired.
"About the books of other people. I'm a critic, an historian,
in a small way." I wondered what she was coming to.
"And what other people, now?"
"Oh, better ones than myself: the great writers mainly--
the great philosophers and poets of the past; those who are
dead and gone and can't speak for themselves."
"And what do you say about them?"
"I say they sometimes attached themselves to very clever women!"
I answered, laughing. I spoke with great deliberation,
but as my words fell upon the air they struck me as imprudent.
However, I risked them and I was not sorry, for perhaps
after all the old woman would be willing to treat.
It seemed to be tolerably obvious that she knew my secret:
why therefore drag the matter out? But she did not take what I
had said as a confession; she only asked:
"Do you think it's right to rake up the past?"
"I don't know that I know what you mean by raking it up;
but how can we get at it unless we dig a little?
The present has such a rough way of treading it down."
"Oh, I like the past, but I don't like critics," the old woman declared
with her fine tranquility.
"Neither do I, but I like their discoveries."
"Aren't they mostly lies?"
"The lies are what they sometimes discover," I said, smiling at the quiet
impertinence of this. "They often lay bare the truth."
"The truth is God's, it isn't man's; we had better leave it alone.
Who can judge of it--who can say?"
"We are terribly in the dark, I know," I admitted; "but if we give
up trying what becomes of all the fine things? What becomes of
the work I just mentioned, that of the great philosophers and poets?
It is all vain words if there is nothing to measure it by."
"You talk as if you were a tailor," said Miss Bordereau whimsically;
and then she added quickly, in a different manner, "This house
is very fine; the proportions are magnificent. Today I wanted
to look at this place again. I made them bring me out here.
When your man came, just now, to learn if I would see you,
I was on the point of sending for you, to ask if you didn't
mean to go on. I wanted to judge what I'm letting you have.
This sala is very grand," she pursued, like an auctioneer,
moving a little, as I guessed, her invisible eyes.
"I don't believe you often have lived in such a house, eh?"
"I can't often afford to!" I said.
"Well then, how much will you give for six months?"
I was on the point of exclaiming--and the air of excruciation
in my face would have denoted a moral face--"Don't, Juliana; for
HIS sake, don't!" But I controlled myself and asked less passionately:
"Why should I remain so long as that?"
"I thought you liked it," said Miss Bordereau with her shriveled dignity.
"So I thought I should."
For a moment she said nothing more, and I left my own words to suggest
to her what they might. I half-expected her to say, coldly enough,
that if I had been disappointed we need not continue the discussion,
and this in spite of the fact that I believed her now to have in her mind
(however it had come there) what would have told her that my disappointment
was natural. But to my extreme surprise she ended by observing:
"If you don't think we have treated you well enough perhaps we can discover
some way of treating you better." This speech was somehow so incongruous
that it made me laugh again, and I excused myself by saying that she talked
as if I were a sulky boy, pouting in the corner, to be "brought round."
I had not a grain of complaint to make; and could anything have exceeded Miss
Tita's graciousness in accompanying me a few nights before to the Piazza?
At this the old woman went on: "Well, you brought it on yourself!"
And then in a different tone, "She is a very nice girl."
I assented cordially to this proposition, and she expressed the hope
that I did so not merely to be obliging, but that I really liked her.
Meanwhile I wondered still more what Miss Bordereau was coming to.
"Except for me, today," she said, "she has not a relation in the world."
Did she by describing her niece as amiable and unencumbered wish
to represent her as a parti?
It was perfectly true that I could not afford to go on with my
rooms at a fancy price and that I had already devoted to my
undertaking almost all the hard cash I had set apart for it.
My patience and my time were by no means exhausted, but I should
be able to draw upon them only on a more usual Venetian basis.
I was willing to pay the venerable woman with whom my pecuniary dealings
were such a discord twice as much as any other padrona di casa would
have asked, but I was not willing to pay her twenty times as much.
I told her so plainly, and my plainness appeared to have some success,
for she exclaimed, "Very good; you have done what I asked--
you have made an offer!"
"Yes, but not for half a year. Only by the month."
"Oh, I must think of that then." She seemed disappointed
that I would not tie myself to a period, and I guessed that she
wished both to secure me and to discourage me; to say severely,
"Do you dream that you can get off with less than six months?
Do you dream that even by the end of that time you will be
appreciably nearer your victory?" What was more in my mind
was that she had a fancy to play me the trick of making me
engage myself when in fact she had annihilated the papers.
There was a moment when my suspense on this point was so acute
that I all but broke out with the question, and what kept it back
was but a kind of instinctive recoil (lest it should be a mistake),
from the last violence of self-exposure. She was such a subtle
old witch that one could never tell where one stood with her.
You may imagine whether it cleared up the puzzle when,
just after she had said she would think of my proposal and without
any formal transition, she drew out of her pocket with an
embarrassed hand a small object wrapped in crumpled white paper.
She held it there a moment and then she asked, "Do you know
much about curiosities?"
"About antiquities, the old gimcracks that people pay so much for today.
Do you know the kind of price they bring?"
I thought I saw what was coming, but I said ingenuously,
"Do you want to buy something?"
"No, I want to sell. What would an amateur give me for that?"
She unfolded the white paper and made a motion for me to take from
her a small oval portrait. I possessed myself of it with a hand
of which I could only hope that she did not perceive the tremor,
and she added, "I would part with it only for a good price."
At the first glance I recognized Jeffrey Aspern, and I was well
aware that I flushed with the act. As she was watching me
however I had the consistency to exclaim, "What a striking face!
Do tell me who it is."
"It's an old friend of mine, a very distinguished man in his day.
He gave it to me himself, but I'm afraid to mention his name, lest you
never should have heard of him, critic and historian as you are.
I know the world goes fast and one generation forgets another.
He was all the fashion when I was young."
She was perhaps amazed at my assurance, but I was surprised at hers; at her
having the energy, in her state of health and at her time of life, to wish
to sport with me that way simply for her private entertainment--the humor
to test me and practice on me. This, at least, was the interpretation that I
put upon her production of the portrait, for I could not believe that she
really desired to sell it or cared for any information I might give her.
What she wished was to dangle it before my eyes and put a prohibitive
price on it. "The face comes back to me, it torments me," I said,
turning the object this way and that and looking at it very critically.
It was a careful but not a supreme work of art, larger than the
ordinary miniature and representing a young man with a remarkably
handsome face, in a high-collared green coat and a buff waistcoat.
I judged the picture to have a valuable quality of resemblance and to have
been painted when the model was about twenty-five years old. There are,
as all the world knows, three other portraits of the poet in existence,
but none of them is of so early a date as this elegant production.
"I have never seen the original but I have seen other likenesses," I went on.
"You expressed doubt of this generation having heard of the gentleman,
but he strikes me for all the world as a celebrity. Now who is he?
I can't put my finger on him--I can't give him a label. Wasn't he a writer?
Surely he's a poet." I was determined that it should be she, not I,
who should first pronounce Jeffrey Aspern's name.
My resolution was taken in ignorance of Miss Bordereau's
extremely resolute character, and her lips never formed
in my hearing the syllables that meant so much for her.
She neglected to answer my question but raised her hand to take
back the picture, with a gesture which though ineffectual
was in a high degree peremptory. "It's only a person
who should know for himself that would give me my price,"
she said with a certain dryness.
"Oh, then, you have a price?" I did not restore the precious thing;
not from any vindictive purpose but because I instinctively clung to it.
We looked at each other hard while I retained it.
"I know the least I would take. What it occurred to me to ask you
about is the most I shall be able to get."
She made a movement, drawing herself together as if,
in a spasm of dread at having lost her treasure, she were going
to attempt the immense effort of rising to snatch it from me.
I instantly placed it in her hand again, saying as I did so,
"I should like to have it myself, but with your ideas I could
never afford it."
She turned the small oval plate over in her lap, with its face down,
and I thought I saw her catch her breath a little, as if she had
had a strain or an escape. This however did not prevent her saying
in a moment, "You would buy a likeness of a person you don't know,
by an artist who has no reputation?"
"The artist may have no reputation, but that thing is wonderfully
well painted," I replied, to give myself a reason.
"It's lucky you thought of saying that, because the painter
was my father."
"That makes the picture indeed precious!" I exclaimed, laughing; and I
may add that a part of my laughter came from my satisfaction in finding
that I had been right in my theory of Miss Bordereau's origin. Aspern had
of course met the young lady when he went to her father's studio as a sitter.
I observed to Miss Bordereau that if she would entrust me with her
property for twenty-four hours I should be happy to take advice upon it;
but she made no answer to this save to slip it in silence into her pocket.
This convinced me still more that she had no sincere intention of selling
it during her lifetime, though she may have desired to satisfy herself
as to the sum her niece, should she leave it to her, might expect
eventually to obtain for it. "Well, at any rate I hope you will not offer
it without giving me notice," I said as she remained irresponsive.
"Remember that I am a possible purchaser."
"I should want your money first!" she returned with unexpected rudeness;
and then, as if she bethought herself that I had just cause to complain
of such an insinuation and wished to turn the matter off, asked abruptly
what I talked about with her niece when I went out with her that way
in the evening.
"You speak as if we had set up the habit," I replied.
"Certainly I should be very glad if it were to become a habit.
But in that case I should feel a still greater scruple at
betraying a lady's confidence."
"Her confidence? Has she got confidence?"
"Here she is--she can tell you herself," I said; for Miss Tita
now appeared on the threshold of the old woman's parlor.
"Have you got confidence, Miss Tita? Your aunt wants very
much to know."
"Not in her, not in her!" the younger lady declared, shaking her
head with a dolefulness that was neither jocular not affected.
"I don't know what to do with her; she has fits of horrid imprudence.
She is so easily tired--and yet she has begun to roam--
to drag herself about the house." And she stood looking down
at her immemorial companion with a sort of helpless wonder,
as if all their years of familiarity had not made her perversities,
on occasion, any more easy to follow.
"I know what I'm about. I'm not losing my mind.
I daresay you would like to think so," said Miss Bordereau
with a cynical little sigh.
"I don't suppose you came out here yourself. Miss Tita must have had to lend
you a hand," I interposed with a pacifying intention.
"Oh, she insisted that we should push her; and when she insists!"
said Miss Tita in the same tone of apprehension; as if there were no
knowing what service that she disapproved of her aunt might force
her next to render.
"I have always got most things done I wanted, thank God!
The people I have lived with have humored me," the old
woman continued, speaking out of the gray ashes of her vanity.
"I suppose you mean that they have obeyed you."
"Well, whatever it is, when they like you."
"It's just because I like you that I want to resist,"
said Miss Tita with a nervous laugh.
"Oh, I suspect you'll bring Miss Bordereau upstairs next to pay me a visit,"
I went on; to which the old lady replied:
"Oh, no; I can keep an eye on you from here!"
"You are very tired; you will certainly be ill tonight!"
cried Miss Tita.
"Nonsense, my dear; I feel better at this moment than I
have done for a month. Tomorrow I shall come out again.
I want to be where I can see this clever gentleman."
"Shouldn't you perhaps see me better in your sitting room?"
"Don't you mean shouldn't you have a better chance at me?"
she returned, fixing me a moment with her green shade.
"Ah, I haven't that anywhere! I look at you but I don't see you."
"You excite her dreadfully--and that is not good," said Miss Tita,
giving me a reproachful, appealing look.
"I want to watch you--I want to watch you!" the old lady went on.
"Well then, let us spend as much of our time together as possible--
I don't care where--and that will give you every facility."
"Oh, I've seen you enough for today. I'm satisfied. Now I'll go home."
Miss Tita laid her hands on the back of her aunt's chair and began to push,
but I begged her to let me take her place. "Oh, yes, you may move me
this way--you shan't in any other!" Miss Bordereau exclaimed as she
felt herself propelled firmly and easily over the smooth, hard floor.
Before we reached the door of her own apartment she commanded me to stop,
and she took a long, last look up and down the noble sala. "Oh, it's
a magnificent house!" she murmured; after which I pushed her forward.
When we had entered the parlor Miss Tita told me that she should now
be able to manage, and at the same moment the little red-haired
donna came to meet her mistress. Miss Tita's idea was evidently
to get her aunt immediately back to bed. I confess that in spite
of this urgency I was guilty of the indiscretion of lingering;
it held me there to think that I was nearer the documents I coveted--
that they were probably put away somewhere in the faded, unsociable room.
The place had indeed a bareness which did not suggest hidden treasures;
there were no dusky nooks nor curtained corners, no massive cabinets
nor chests with iron bands. Moreover it was possible, it was perhaps
even probable that the old lady had consigned her relics to her bedroom,
to some battered box that was shoved under the bed, to the drawer of some
lame dressing table, where they would be in the range of vision by the dim
night lamp. Nonetheless I scrutinized every article of furniture,
every conceivable cover for a hoard, and noticed that there were half
a dozen things with drawers, and in particular a tall old secretary,
with brass ornaments of the style of the Empire--a receptacle
somewhat rickety but still capable of keeping a great many secrets.
I don't know why this article fascinated me so, inasmuch as I certainly
had no definite purpose of breaking into it; but I stared at it so hard
that Miss Tita noticed me and changed color. Her doing this made me think
I was right and that wherever they might have been before the Aspern papers
at that moment languished behind the peevish little lock of the secretary.
it was hard to remove my eyes from the dull mahogany front when I
reflected that a simple panel divided me from the goal of my hopes;
but I remembered my prudence and with an effort took leave of Miss Bordereau.
To make the effort graceful I said to her that I should certainly bring
her an opinion about the little picture.
"The little picture?" Miss Tita asked, surprised.
"What do YOU know about it, my dear?" the old woman demanded.
"You needn't mind. I have fixed my price."
"And what may that be?"
"A thousand pounds."
"Oh Lord!" cried poor Miss Tita irrepressibly.
"Is that what she talks to you about?" said Miss Bordereau.
"Imagine your aunt's wanting to know!" I had to separate from Miss Tita
with only those words, though I should have liked immensely to add,
"For heaven's sake meet me tonight in the garden!"
As it turned out the precaution had not been needed,
for three hours later, just as I had finished my dinner,
Miss Bordereau's niece appeared, unannounced, in the open
doorway of the room in which my simple repasts were served.
I remember well that I felt no surprise at seeing her;
which is not a proof that I did not believe in her timidity.
It was immense, but in a case in which there was a particular
reason for boldness it never would have prevented her from
running up to my rooms. I saw that she was now quite full
of a particular reason; it threw her forward--made her seize me,
as I rose to meet her, by the arm.
"My aunt is very ill; I think she is dying!"
"Never in the world," I answered bitterly. "Don't you be afraid!"
"Do go for a doctor--do, do! Olimpia is gone for the one we always have,
but she doesn't come back; I don't know what has happened to her.
I told her that if he was not at home she was to follow him where
he had gone; but apparently she is following him all over Venice.
I don't know what to do--she looks so as if she were sinking."
"May I see her, may I judge?" I asked. "Of course I shall be
delighted to bring someone; but hadn't we better send my man instead,
so that I may stay with you?"
Miss Tita assented to this and I dispatched my servant for the best
doctor in the neighborhood. I hurried downstairs with her,
and on the way she told me that an hour after I quitted them
in the afternoon Miss Bordereau had had an attack of "oppression,"
a terrible difficulty in breathing. This had subsided but had left
her so exhausted that she did not come up: she seemed all gone.
I repeated that she was not gone, that she would not go yet;
whereupon Miss Tita gave me a sharper sidelong glance than she
had ever directed at me and said, "Really, what do you mean?
I suppose you don't accuse her of making believe!"
I forget what reply I made to this, but I grant that in my
heart I thought the old woman capable of any weird maneuver.
Miss Tita wanted to know what I had done to her; her aunt had told
her that I had made her so angry. I declared I had done nothing--
I had been exceedingly careful; to which my companion rejoined
that Miss Bordereau had assured her she had had a scene with me--
a scene that had upset her. I answered with some resentment
that it was a scene of her own making--that I couldn't think
what she was angry with me for unless for not seeing my way
to give a thousand pounds for the portrait of Jeffrey Aspern.
"And did she show you that? Oh, gracious--oh, deary me!"
groaned Miss Tita, who appeared to feel that the situation
was passing out of her control and that the elements of her
fate were thickening around her. I said that I would give
anything to possess it, yet that I had not a thousand pounds;
but I stopped when we came to the door of Miss Bordereau's room.
I had an immense curiosity to pass it, but I thought it my duty
to represent to Miss Tita that if I made the invalid angry she
ought perhaps to be spared the sight of me. "The sight of you?
Do you think she can SEE?" my companion demanded almost
with indignation. I did think so but forebore to say it,
and I softly followed my conductress.
I remember that what I said to her as I stood for a moment beside
the old woman's bed was, "Does she never show you her eyes then?
Have you never seen them?" Miss Bordereau had been divested
of her green shade, but (it was not my fortune to behold Juliana
in her nightcap) the upper half of her face was covered by the fall
of a piece of dingy lacelike muslin, a sort of extemporized
hood which, wound round her head, descended to the end of her nose,
leaving nothing visible but her white withered cheeks and
puckered mouth, closed tightly and, as it were consciously.
Miss Tita gave me a glance of surprise, evidently not seeing a reason
for my impatience. "You mean that she always wears something?
She does it to preserve them."
"Because they are so fine?"
"Oh, today, today!" And Miss Tita shook her head, speaking very low.
"But they used to be magnificent!"
"Yes indeed, we have Aspern's word for that." And as I looked again
at the old woman's wrappings I could imagine that she had not wished
to allow people a reason to say that the great poet had overdone it.
But I did not waste my time in considering Miss Bordereau, in whom
the appearance of respiration was so slight as to suggest that no human
attention could ever help her more. I turned my eyes all over the room,
rummaging with them the closets, the chests of drawers, the tables.
Miss Tita met them quickly and read, I think, what was in them; but she did
not answer it, turning away restlessly, anxiously, so that I felt rebuked,
with reason, for a preoccupation that was almost profane in the presence
of our dying companion. All the same I took another look, endeavoring to
pick out mentally the place to try first, for a person who should wish
to put his hand on Miss Bordereau's papers directly after her death.
The room was a dire confusion; it looked like the room of an old actress.
There were clothes hanging over chairs, odd-looking shabby bundles
here and there, and various pasteboard boxes piled together,
battered, bulging, and discolored, which might have been fifty years old.
Miss Tita after a moment noticed the direction of my eyes again and,
as if she guessed how I judged the air of the place (forgetting I
had no business to judge it at all), said, perhaps to defend herself
from the imputation of complicity in such untidiness:
"She likes it this way; we can't move things.
There are old bandboxes she has had most of her life."
Then she added, half taking pity on my real thought,
"Those things were THERE." And she pointed to a small,
low trunk which stood under a sofa where there was just room for it.
It appeared to be a queer, superannuated coffer, of painted wood,
with elaborate handles and shriveled straps and with the color
(it had last been endued with a coat of light green) much rubbed off.
It evidently had traveled with Juliana in the olden time--
in the days of her adventures, which it had shared.
It would have made a strange figure arriving at a modern hotel.
"WERE there--they aren't now?" I asked, startled by
Miss Tita's implication.
She was going to answer, but at that moment the doctor came in--
the doctor whom the little maid had been sent to fetch and whom she
had at last overtaken. My servant, going on his own errand, had met
her with her companion in tow, and in the sociable Venetian spirit,
retracing his steps with them, had also come up to the threshold of Miss
Bordereau's room, where I saw him peeping over the doctor's shoulder.
I motioned him away the more instantly that the sight of his prying
face reminded me that I myself had almost as little to do there--
an admonition confirmed by the sharp way the little doctor looked at me,
appearing to take me for a rival who had the field before him.
He was a short, fat, brisk gentleman who wore the tall hat of his
profession and seemed to look at everything but his patient.
He looked particularly at me, as if it struck him that I
should be better for a dose, so that I bowed to him and left
him with the women, going down to smoke a cigar in the garden.
I was nervous; I could not go further; I could not leave the place.
I don't know exactly what I thought might happen, but it seemed
to me important to be there. I wandered about in the alleys--
the warm night had come on--smoking cigar after cigar and looking
at the light in Miss Bordereau's windows. They were open now,
I could see; the situation was different. Sometimes the light moved,
but not quickly; it did not suggest the hurry of a crisis.
Was the old woman dying, or was she already dead? Had the doctor
said that there was nothing to be done at her tremendous age but to
let her quietly pass away; or had he simply announced with a look
a little more conventional that the end of the end had come?
Were the other two women moving about to perform the offices that
follow in such a case? It made me uneasy not to be nearer, as if I
thought the doctor himself might carry away the papers with him.
I bit my cigar hard as it came over me again that perhaps there
were now no papers to carry!
I wandered about for an hour--for an hour and a half.
I looked out for Miss Tita at one of the windows, having a
vague idea that she might come there to give me some sign.
Would she not see the red tip of my cigar moving about in the dark
and feel that I wanted eminently to know what the doctor had said?
I am afraid it is a proof my anxieties had made me gross that I
should have taken in some degree for granted that at such an hour,
in the midst of the greatest change that could take place
in her life, they were uppermost also in Miss Tita's mind.
My servant came down and spoke to me; he knew nothing save
that the doctor had gone after a visit of half an hour.
If he had stayed half an hour then Miss Bordereau was still alive:
it could not have taken so much time as that to enunciate
the contrary. I sent the man out of the house; there were moments
when the sense of his curiosity annoyed me, and this was one of them.
HE had been watching my cigar tip from an upper window,
if Miss Tita had not; he could not know what I was after and I
could not tell him, though I was conscious he had fantastic
private theories about me which he thought fine and which I,
had I known them, should have thought offensive.
I went upstairs at last but I ascended no higher than the
sala. The door of Miss Bordereau's apartment was open,
showing from the parlor the dimness of a poor candle.
I went toward it with a light tread, and at the same moment
Miss Tita appeared and stood looking at me as I approached.
"She's better--she's better," she said, even before I had asked.
"The doctor has given her something; she woke up, came back to life
while he was there. He says there is no immediate danger."
"No immediate danger? Surely he thinks her condition strange!"
"Yes, because she had been excited. That affects her dreadfully."
"It will do so again then, because she excites herself.
She did so this afternoon."
"Yes; she mustn't come out any more," said Miss Tita, with one of her lapses
into a deeper placidity.
"What is the use of making such a remark as that if you begin to rattle
her about again the first time she bids you?"
"I won't--I won't do it any more."
"You must learn to resist her," I went on.
"Oh, yes, I shall; I shall do so better if you tell me it's right."
"You mustn't do it for me; you must do it for yourself.
It all comes back to you, if you are frightened."
"Well, I am not frightened now," said Miss Tita cheerfully.
"She is very quiet."
"Is she conscious again--does she speak?"
"No, she doesn't speak, but she takes my hand. She holds it fast."
'Yes," I rejoined, "I can see what force she still has
by the way she grabbed that picture this afternoon.
But if she holds you fast how comes it that you are here?"
Miss Tita hesitated a moment; though her face was in deep shadow (she had her
back to the light in the parlor and I had put down my own candle far off,
near the door of the sala), I thought I saw her smile ingenuously.
"I came on purpose--I heard your step."
"Why, I came on tiptoe, as inaudibly as possible."
"Well, I heard you," said Miss Tita.
"And is your aunt alone now?"
"Oh, no; Olimpia is sitting there."
On my side I hesitated. "Shall we then step in there?"
And I nodded at the parlor; I wanted more and more to be
on the spot.
"We can't talk there--she will hear us."
I was on the point of replying that in that case we would
sit silent, but I was too conscious that this would not do,
as there was something I desired immensely to ask her.
So I proposed that we should walk a little in the sala, keeping
more at the other end, where we should not disturb the old lady.
Miss Tita assented unconditionally; the doctor was coming again,
she said, and she would be there to meet him at the door.
We strolled through the fine superfluous hall, where on
the marble floor--particularly as at first we said nothing--
our footsteps were more audible than I had expected.
When we reached the other end--the wide window, inveterately closed,
connecting with the balcony that overhung the canal--
I suggested that we should remain there, as she would see
the doctor arrive still better. I opened the window and we passed
out on the balcony. The air of the canal seemed even heavier,
hotter than that of the sala. The place was hushed and void;
the quiet neighborhood had gone to sleep. A lamp, here and there,
over the narrow black water, glimmered in double; the voice
of a man going homeward singing, with his jacket on his
shoulder and his hat on his ear, came to us from a distance.
This did not prevent the scene from being very comme il faut,
as Miss Bordereau had called it the first time I saw her.
Presently a gondola passed along the canal with its slow
rhythmical plash, and as we listened we watched it in silence.
It did not stop, it did not carry the doctor; and after it
had gone on I said to Miss Tita:
"And where are they now--the things that were in the trunk?"
"In the trunk?"
"That green box you pointed out to me in her room.
You said her papers had been there; you seemed to imply that she
had transferred them."
"Oh, yes; they are not in the trunk," said Miss Tita.
"May I ask if you have looked?"
"Yes, I have looked--for you."
"How for me, dear Miss Tita? Do you mean you would have given them
to me if you had found them?" I asked, almost trembling.
She delayed to reply and I waited. Suddenly she broke out,
"I don't know what I would do--what I wouldn't!"
"Would you look again--somewhere else?"
She had spoken with a strange unexpected emotion, and she went
on in the same tone: "I can't--I can't--while she lies there.
It isn't decent."
"No, it isn't decent," I replied gravely. "Let the poor lady rest
in peace." And the words, on my lips, were not hypocritical,
for I felt reprimanded and shamed.
Miss Tita added in a moment, as if she had guessed this
and were sorry for me, but at the same time wished to explain
that I did drive her on or at least did insist too much:
"I can't deceive her that way. I can't deceive her--
perhaps on her deathbed."
"Heaven forbid I should ask you, though I have been guilty myself!"
"You have been guilty?"
"I have sailed under false colors." I felt now as if I must tell
her that I had given her an invented name, on account of my fear
that her aunt would have heard of me and would refuse to take me in.
I explained this and also that I had really been a party to the letter
written to them by John Cumnor months before.
She listened with great attention, looking at me with parted lips,
and when I had made my confession she said, "Then your real name--
what is it?" She repeated it over twice when I had told her,
accompanying it with the exclamation "Gracious, gracious!"
Then she added, "I like your own best."
"So do I," I said, laughing. "Ouf! it's a relief to get rid
of the other."
"So it was a regular plot--a kind of conspiracy?"
"Oh, a conspiracy--we were only two," I replied, leaving out
Mrs. Prest of course.
She hesitated; I thought she was perhaps going to say that we had been
very base. But she remarked after a moment, in a candid, wondering way,
"How much you must want them!"
"Oh, I do, passionately!" I conceded, smiling. And this chance
made me go on, forgetting my compunction of a moment before.
"How can she possibly have changed their place herself?
How can she walk? How can she arrive at that sort of muscular exertion?
How can she lift and carry things?"
"Oh, when one wants and when one has so much will!" said Miss Tita,
as if she had thought over my question already herself and had simply
had no choice but that answer--the idea that in the dead of night,
or at some moment when the coast was clear, the old woman had been
capable of a miraculous effort.
"Have you questioned Olimpia? Hasn't she helped her--hasn't she
done it for her?" I asked; to which Miss Tita replied promptly and
positively that their servant had had nothing to do with the matter,
though without admitting definitely that she had spoken to her.
It was as if she were a little shy, a little ashamed now of letting me
see how much she had entered into my uneasiness and had me on her mind.
Suddenly she said to me, without any immediate relevance:
"I feel as if you were a new person, now that you have got a new name."
"It isn't a new one; it is a very good old one, thank heaven!"
She looked at me a moment. "I do like it better."
"Oh, if you didn't I would almost go on with the other!"
"Would you really?"
I laughed again, but for all answer to this inquiry I said,
"Of course if she can rummage about that way she can perfectly
have burnt them."
"You must wait--you must wait," Miss Tita moralized mournfully;
and her tone ministered little to my patience, for it
seemed after all to accept that wretched possibility.
I would teach myself to wait, I declared nevertheless;
because in the first place I could not do otherwise and in
the second I had her promise, given me the other night,
that she would help me.
"Of course if the papers are gone that's no use," she said;
not as if she wished to recede, but only to be conscientious.
"Naturally. But if you could only find out!" I groaned, quivering again.
"I thought you said you would wait."
"Oh, you mean wait even for that?"
"For what then?"
"Oh, nothing," I replied, rather foolishly, being ashamed
to tell her what had been implied in my submission to delay--
the idea that she would do more than merely find out.
I know not whether she guessed this; at all events she appeared
to become aware of the necessity for being a little more rigid.
"I didn't promise to deceive, did I? I don't think I did."
"It doesn't much matter whether you did or not, for you couldn't!"
I don't think Miss Tita would have contested this event had she not been
diverted by our seeing the doctor's gondola shoot into the little canal
and approach the house. I noted that he came as fast as if he believed
that Miss Bordereau was still in danger. We looked down at him
while he disembarked and then went back into the sala to meet him.
When he came up however I naturally left Miss Tita to go off with him alone,
only asking her leave to come back later for news.
I went out of the house and took a long walk, as far as the Piazza,
where my restlessness declined to quit me. I was unable to sit down
(it was very late now but there were people still at the little
tables in front of the cafes); I could only walk round and round,
and I did so half a dozen times. I was uncomfortable, but it gave
me a certain pleasure to have told Miss Tita who I really was.
At last I took my way home again, slowly getting all but
inextricably lost, as I did whenever I went out in Venice:
so that it was considerably past midnight when I reached my door.
The sala, upstairs, was as dark as usual and my lamp as I crossed
it found nothing satisfactory to show me. I was disappointed,
for I had notified Miss Tita that I would come back for a report,
and I thought she might have left a light there as a sign.
The door of the ladies' apartment was closed; which seemed an intimation
that my faltering friend had gone to bed, tired of waiting for me.
I stood in the middle of the place, considering, hoping she would
hear me and perhaps peep out, saying to myself too that she would
never go to bed with her aunt in a state so critical; she would
sit up and watch--she would be in a chair, in her dressing gown.
I went nearer the door; I stopped there and listened.
I heard nothing at all and at last I tapped gently.
No answer came and after another minute I turned the handle.
There was no light in the room; this ought to have prevented me from
going in, but it had no such effect. If I have candidly narrated
the importunities, the indelicacies, of which my desire to possess
myself of Jeffrey Aspern's papers had rendered me capable I need
not shrink from confessing this last indiscretion. I think it was
the worst thing I did; yet there were extenuating circumstances.
I was deeply though doubtless not disinterestedly anxious for more
news of the old lady, and Miss Tita had accepted from me, as it were,
a rendezvous which it might have been a point of honor with me to keep.
It may be said that her leaving the place dark was a positive sign
that she released me, and to this I can only reply that I desired
not to be released.
The door of Miss Bordereau's room was open and I could see beyond it the
faintness of a taper. There was no sound--my footstep caused no one to stir.
I came further into the room; I lingered there with my lamp in my hand.
I wanted to give Miss Tita a chance to come to me if she were with her aunt,
as she must be. I made no noise to call her; I only waited to see
if she would not notice my light. She did not, and I explained this
(I found afterward I was right) by the idea that she had fallen asleep.
If she had fallen asleep her aunt was not on her mind, and my explanation
ought to have led me to go out as I had come. I must repeat again that it
did not, for I found myself at the same moment thinking of something else.
I had no definite purpose, no bad intention, but I felt myself held
to the spot by an acute, though absurd, sense of opportunity.
For what I could not have said, inasmuch as it was not in my mind
that I might commit a theft. Even if it had been I was confronted
with the evident fact that Miss Bordereau did not leave her secretary,
her cupboard, and the drawers of her tables gaping. I had no keys,
no tools, and no ambition to smash her furniture. Nonetheless it came
to me that I was now, perhaps alone, unmolested, at the hour of temptation
and secrecy, nearer to the tormenting treasure than I had ever been.
I held up my lamp, let the light play on the different objects as if it
could tell me something. Still there came no movement from the other room.
If Miss Tita was sleeping she was sleeping sound. Was she doing so--
generous creature--on purpose to leave me the field? Did she know
I was there and was she just keeping quiet to see what I would do--
what I COULD do? But what could I do, when it came to that?
She herself knew even better than I how little.
I stopped in front of the secretary, looking at it
very idiotically; for what had it to say to me after all?
In the first place it was locked, and in the second it
almost surely contained nothing in which I was interested.
Ten to one the papers had been destroyed; and even if they
had not been destroyed the old woman would not have put them
in such a place as that after removing them from the green trunk--
would not have transferred them, if she had the idea of their
safety on her brain, from the better hiding place to the worse.
The secretary was more conspicuous, more accessible
in a room in which she could no longer mount guard.
It opened with a key, but there was a little brass handle,
like a button, as well; I saw this as I played my lamp over it.
I did something more than this at that moment:
I caught a glimpse of the possibility that Miss Tita wished me
really to understand. If she did not wish me to understand,
if she wished me to keep away, why had she not locked the door
of communication between the sitting room and the sala? That
would have been a definite sign that I was to leave them alone.
If I did not leave them alone she meant me to come for a purpose--
a purpose now indicated by the quick, fantastic idea that to oblige
me she had unlocked the secretary. She had not left the key,
but the lid would probably move if I touched the button.
This theory fascinated me, and I bent over very close to judge.
I did not propose to do anything, not even--not in the least--
to let down the lid; I only wanted to test my theory,
to see if the cover WOULD move. I touched the button
with my hand--a mere touch would tell me; and as I did so (it is
embarrassing for me to relate it), I looked over my shoulder.
It was a chance, an instinct, for I had not heard anything.
I almost let my luminary drop and certainly I stepped back,
straightening myself up at what I saw. Miss Bordereau stood
there in her nightdress, in the doorway of her room, watching me;
her hands were raised, she had lifted the everlasting
curtain that covered half her face, and for the first,
the last, the only time I beheld her extraordinary eyes.
They glared at me, they made me horribly ashamed.
I never shall forget her strange little bent white tottering
figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her expression;
neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned,
looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously:
"Ah, you publishing scoundrel!"
I know not what I stammered, to excuse myself, to explain;
but I went toward her, to tell her I meant no harm.
She waved me off with her old hands, retreating before me in horror;
and the next thing I knew she had fallen back with a quick spasm,
as if death had descended on her, into Miss Tita's arms.
I left Venice the next morning, as soon as I learned that the old
lady had not succumbed, as I feared at the moment, to the shock
I had given her--the shock I may also say she had given me.
How in the world could I have supposed her capable of getting out
of bed by herself? I failed to see Miss Tita before going; I only saw
the donna, whom I entrusted with a note for her younger mistress.
In this note I mentioned that I should be absent but for a few days.
I went to Treviso, to Bassano, to Castelfranco; I took walks and drives and
looked at musty old churches with ill-lighted pictures and spent hours seated
smoking at the doors of cafes, where there were flies and yellow curtains,
on the shady side of sleepy little squares. In spite of these pastimes,
which were mechanical and perfunctory, I scantily enjoyed my journey:
there was too strong a taste of the disagreeable in my life.
I had been devilish awkward, as the young men say, to be found by Miss
Bordereau in the dead of night examining the attachment of her bureau;
and it had not been less so to have to believe for a good many hours
afterward that it was highly probable I had killed her. In writing
to Miss Tita I attempted to minimize these irregularities; but as she gave
me no word of answer I could not know what impression I made upon her.
It rankled in my mind that I had been called a publishing scoundrel,
for certainly I did publish and certainly I had not been very delicate.
There was a moment when I stood convinced that the only way to make up
for this latter fault was to take myself away altogether on the instant;
to sacrifice my hopes and relieve the two poor women forever of the oppression
of my intercourse. Then I reflected that I had better try a short
absence first, for I must already have had a sense (unexpressed and dim)
that in disappearing completely it would not be merely my own hopes that I
should condemn to extinction. It would perhaps be sufficient if I stayed
away long enough to give the elder lady time to think she was rid of me.
That she would wish to be rid of me after this (if I was not rid of her)
was now not to be doubted: that nocturnal scene would have cured her
of the disposition to put up with my company for the sake of my dollars.
I said to myself that after all I could not abandon Miss Tita, and I continued
to say this even while I observed that she quite failed to comply with my
earnest request (I had given her two or three addresses, at little towns,
post restante) that she would let me know how she was getting on.
I would have made my servant write to me but that he was unable to manage
a pen. It struck me there was a kind of scorn in Miss Tita's silence
(little disdainful as she had ever been), so that I was uncomfortable
and sore. I had scruples about going back and yet I had others
about not doing so, for I wanted to put myself on a better footing.
The end of it was that I did return to Venice on the twelfth day;
and as my gondola gently bumped against Miss Bordereau's steps a certain
palpitation of suspense told me that I had done myself a violence
in holding off so long.
I had faced about so abruptly that I had not telegraphed to my servant.
He was therefore not at the station to meet me, but he poked
out his head from an upper window when I reached the house.
"They have put her into the earth, la vecchia," he said to me
in the lower hall, while he shouldered my valise; and he grinned
and almost winked, as if he knew I should be pleased at the news.
"She's dead!" I exclaimed, giving him a very different look.
"So it appears, since they have buried her."
"It's all over? When was the funeral?"
"The other yesterday. But a funeral you could scarcely
call it, signore; it was a dull little passeggio of two gondolas.
Poveretta!" the man continued, referring apparently to Miss Tita.
His conception of funerals was apparently that they were mainly
to amuse the living.
I wanted to know about Miss Tita--how she was and where she was--
but I asked him no more questions till we had got upstairs.
Now that the fact had met me I took a bad view of it,
especially of the idea that poor Miss Tita had had to manage
by herself after the end. What did she know about arrangements,
about the steps to take in such a case? Poveretta indeed!
I could only hope that the doctor had given her assistance
and that she had not been neglected by the old friends
of whom she had told me, the little band of the faithful
whose fidelity consisted in coming to the house once a year.
I elicited from my servant that two old ladies and an old gentleman
had in fact rallied round Miss Tita and had supported her
(they had come for her in a gondola of their own) during the
journey to the cemetery, the little red-walled island of tombs
which lies to the north of the town, on the way to Murano.
It appeared from these circumstances that the Misses Bordereau
were Catholics, a discovery I had never made, as the old woman
could not go to church and her niece, so far as I perceived,
either did not or went only to early mass in the parish,
before I was stirring. Certainly even the priests respected
their seclusion; I had never caught the whisk of the curato's skirt.
That evening, an hour later, I sent my servant down with five
words written on a card, to ask Miss Tita if she would see me
for a few moments. She was not in the house, where he had
sought her, he told me when he came back, but in the garden
walking about to refresh herself and gathering flowers.
He had found her there and she would be very happy to see me.
I went down and passed half an hour with poor Miss Tita.
She had always had a look of musty mourning (as if she
were wearing out old robes of sorrow that would not come
to an end), and in this respect there was no appreciable
change in her appearance. But she evidently had been crying,
crying a great deal--simply, satisfyingly, refreshingly, with a
sort of primitive, retarded sense of loneliness and violence.
But she had none of the formalism or the self-consciousness
of grief, and I was almost surprised to see her standing
there in the first dusk with her hands full of flowers,
smiling at me with her reddened eyes. Her white face,
in the frame of her mantilla, looked longer, leaner than usual.
I had had an idea that she would be a good deal disgusted
with me--would consider that I ought to have been on the spot
to advise her, to help her; and, though I was sure there
was no rancor in her composition and no great conviction
of the importance of her affairs, I had prepared myself
for a difference in her manner, for some little injured look,
half-familiar, half-estranged, which should say to my conscience,
"Well, you are a nice person to have professed things!"
But historic truth compels me to declare that Tita Bordereau's
countenance expressed unqualified pleasure in seeing her late
aunt's lodger. That touched him extremely, and he thought
it simplified his situation until he found it did not.
I was as kind to her that evening as I knew how to be,
and I walked about the garden with her for half an hour.
There was no explanation of any sort between us; I did not ask
her why she had not answered my letter. Still less did I repeat
what I had said to her in that communication; if she chose to let
me suppose that she had forgotten the position in which Miss
Bordereau surprised me that night and the effect of the discovery
on the old woman I was quite willing to take it that way:
I was grateful to her for not treating me as if I had
killed her aunt.
We strolled and strolled and really not much passed between us
save the recognition of her bereavement, conveyed in my manner
and in a visible air that she had of depending on me now,
since I let her see that I took an interest in her.
Miss Tita had none of the pride that makes a person wish
to preserve the look of independence; she did not in the least
pretend that she knew at present what would become of her.
I forebore to touch particularly on that, however, for I certainly
was not prepared to say that I would take charge of her.
I was cautious; not ignobly, I think, for I felt that her
knowledge of life was so small that in her unsophisticated
vision there would be no reason why--since I seemed to pity her--
I should not look after her. She told me how her aunt had died,
very peacefully at the last, and how everything had been done
afterward by the care of her good friends (fortunately, thanks
to me, she said, smiling, there was money in the house;
and she repeated that when once the Italians like you they
are your friends for life); and when we had gone into this
she asked me about my giro, my impressions, the places
I had seen. I told her what I could, making it up partly,
I am afraid, as in my depression I had not seen much;
and after she had heard me she exclaimed, quite as if she
had forgotten her aunt and her sorrow, "Dear, dear, how much
I should like to do such things--to take a little journey!"
It came over me for the moment that I ought to propose some tour,
say I would take her anywhere she liked; and I remarked
at any rate that some excursion--to give her a change--
might be managed: we would think of it, talk it over.
I said never a word to her about the Aspern documents; asked no
questions as to what she had ascertained or what had otherwise
happened with regard to them before Miss Bordereau's death.
It was not that I was not on pins and needles to know, but that I
thought it more decent not to betray my anxiety so soon after
the catastrophe. I hoped she herself would say something, but she
never glanced that way, and I thought this natural at the time.
Later however, that night, it occurred to me that her silence
was somewhat strange; for if she had talked of my movements,
of anything so detached as the Giorgione at Castelfranco, she might
have alluded to what she could easily remember was in my mind.
It was not to be supposed that the emotion produced by her aunt's
death had blotted out the recollection that I was interested
in that lady's relics, and I fidgeted afterward as it came
to me that her reticence might very possibly mean simply
that nothing had been found. We separated in the garden
(it was she who said she must go in); now that she was alone
in the rooms I felt that (judged, at any rate, by Venetian ideas)
I was on rather a different footing in regard to visiting her there.
As I shook hands with her for goodnight I asked her if she
had any general plan--had thought over what she had better do.
"Oh, yes, oh, yes, but I haven't settled anything yet,"
she replied quite cheerfully. Was her cheerfulness explained
by the impression that I would settle for her?
I was glad the next morning that we had neglected practical questions,
for this gave me a pretext for seeing her again immediately.
There was a very practical question to be touched upon.
I owed it to her to let her know formally that of course I did not expect
her to keep me on as a lodger, and also to show some interest in her
own tenure, what she might have on her hands in the way of a lease.
But I was not destined, as it happened, to converse with her for more
than an instant on either of these points. I sent her no message;
I simply went down to the sala and walked to and fro there.
I knew she would come out; she would very soon discover I was there.
Somehow I preferred not to be shut up with her; gardens and big
halls seemed better places to talk. It was a splendid morning,
with something in the air that told of the waning of the long
Venetian summer; a freshness from the sea which stirred the
flowers in the garden and made a pleasant draught in the house,
less shuttered and darkened now than when the old woman was alive.
It was the beginning of autumn, of the end of the golden months.
With this it was the end of my experiment--or would be in the course
of half an hour, when I should really have learned that the papers
had been reduced to ashes. After that there would be nothing left
for me but to go to the station; for seriously (and as it struck me
in the morning light) I could not linger there to act as guardian
to a piece of middle-aged female helplessness. If she had not saved
the papers wherein should I be indebted to her? I think I winced
a little as I asked myself how much, if she HAD saved them,
I should have to recognize and, as it were, to reward such a courtesy.
Might not that circumstance after all saddle me with a guardianship?
If this idea did not make me more uncomfortable as I walked up
and down it was because I was convinced I had nothing to look to.
If the old woman had not destroyed everything before she pounced
upon me in the parlor she had done so afterward.
It took Miss Tita rather longer than I had expected to guess that I was there;
but when at last she came out she looked at me without surprise.
I said to her that I had been waiting for her, and she asked why I had not let
her know. I was glad the next day that I had checked myself before remarking
that I had wished to see if a friendly intuition would not tell her:
it became a satisfaction to me that I had not indulged in that rather
tender joke. What I did say was virtually the truth--that I was too nervous,
since I expected her now to settle my fate.
"Your fate?" said Miss Tita, giving me a queer look;
and as she spoke I noticed a rare change in her.
She was different from what she had been the evening before--
less natural, less quiet. She had been crying the day before and
she was not crying now, and yet she struck me as less confident.
It was as if something had happened to her during the night,
or at least as if she had thought of something that troubled her--
something in particular that affected her relations
with me, made them more embarrassing and complicated.
Had she simply perceived that her aunt's not being there now
altered my position?
"I mean about our papers. ARE there any? You must know now."
"Yes, there are a great many; more than I supposed."
I was struck with the way her voice trembled as she told me this.
"Do you mean that you have got them in there--and that I may see them?"
"I don't think you can see them," said Miss Tita with an extraordinary
expression of entreaty in her eyes, as if the dearest hope she had in the
world now was that I would not take them from her. But how could she expect
me to make such a sacrifice as that after all that had passed between us?
What had I come back to Venice for but to see them, to take them?
My delight in learning they were still in existence was such that
if the poor woman had gone down on her knees to beseech me never to
mention them again I would have treated the proceeding as a bad joke.
"I have got them but I can't show them," she added.
"Not even to me? Ah, Miss Tita!" I groaned, with a voice of infinite
remonstrance and reproach.
She colored, and the tears came back to her eyes;
I saw that it cost her a kind of anguish to take such a stand
but that a dreadful sense of duty had descended upon her.
It made me quite sick to find myself confronted with that
particular obstacle; all the more that it appeared to me I
had been extremely encouraged to leave it out of account.
I almost considered that Miss Tita had assured me that if she
had no greater hindrance than that--! "You don't mean to say
you made her a deathbed promise? It was precisely against
your doing anything of that sort that I thought I was safe.
Oh, I would rather she had burned the papers outright than that!"
"No, it isn't a promise," said Miss Tita.
"Pray what is it then?"
She hesitated and then she said, "She tried to burn them, but I prevented it.
She had hid them in her bed."
"In her bed?"
"Between the mattresses. That's where she put them when she
took them out of the trunk. I can't understand how she did it,
because Olimpia didn't help her. She tells me so, and I believe her.
My aunt only told her afterward, so that she shouldn't touch
the bed--anything but the sheets. So it was badly made,"
added Miss Tita simply.
"I should think so! And how did she try to burn them?"
"She didn't try much; she was too weak, those last days.
But she told me--she charged me. Oh, it was terrible!
She couldn't speak after that night; she could only make signs."
"And what did you do?"
"I took them away. I locked them up."
"In the secretary?"
"Yes, in the secretary," said Miss Tita, reddening again.
"Did you tell her you would burn them?"
"No, I didn't--on purpose."
"On purpose to gratify me?"
"Yes, only for that."
"And what good will you have done me if after all you won't show them?"
"Oh, none; I know that--I know that."
"And did she believe you had destroyed them?"
"I don't know what she believed at the last. I couldn't tell--
she was too far gone."
"Then if there was no promise and no assurance I can't see what ties you."
"Oh, she hated it so--she hated it so! She was so jealous.
But here's the portrait--you may have that," Miss Tita announced,
taking the little picture, wrapped up in the same manner
in which her aunt had wrapped it, out of her pocket.
"I may have it--do you mean you give it to me?"
I questioned, staring, as it passed into my hand.
"But it's worth money--a large sum."
"Well!" said Miss Tita, still with her strange look.
I did not know what to make of it, for it could scarcely mean that she wanted
to bargain like her aunt. She spoke as if she wished to make me a present.
"I can't take it from you as a gift," I said, "and yet I can't afford
to pay you for it according to the ideas Miss Bordereau had of its value.
She rated it at a thousand pounds."
"Couldn't we sell it?" asked Miss Tita.
"God forbid! I prefer the picture to the money."
"Well then keep it."
"You are very generous."
"So are you."
"I don't know why you should think so," I replied; and this
was a truthful speech, for the singular creature appeared
to have some very fine reference in her mind, which I did
not in the least seize.
"Well, you have made a great difference for me," said Miss Tita.
I looked at Jeffrey Aspern's face in the little picture,
partly in order not to look at that of my interlocutress,
which had begun to trouble me, even to frighten me a little--
it was so self-conscious, so unnatural. I made no answer to this
last declaration; I only privately consulted Jeffrey Aspern's
delightful eyes with my own (they were so young and brilliant,
and yet so wise, so full of vision); I asked him what on earth
was the matter with Miss Tita. He seemed to smile at me
with friendly mockery, as if he were amused at my case.
I had got into a pickle for him--as if he needed it!
He was unsatisfactory, for the only moment since I had
known him. Nevertheless, now that I held the little picture
in my hand I felt that it would be a precious possession.
"Is this a bribe to make me give up the papers?"
I demanded in a moment, perversely. "Much as I value it,
if I were to be obliged to choose, the papers are what I
should prefer. Ah, but ever so much!"
"How can you choose--how can you choose?" Miss Tita
asked, slowly, lamentably.
"I see! Of course there is nothing to be said, if you regard
the interdiction that rests upon you as quite insurmountable.
In this case it must seem to you that to part with them would
be an impiety of the worst kind, a simple sacrilege!"
Miss Tita shook her head, full of her dolefulness. "You would understand
if you had known her. I'm afraid," she quavered suddenly--"I'm afraid!
She was terrible when she was angry."
"Yes, I saw something of that, that night. She was terrible.
Then I saw her eyes. Lord, they were fine!"
"I see them--they stare at me in the dark!" said Miss Tita.
"You are nervous, with all you have been through."
"Oh, yes, very--very!"
"You mustn't mind; that will pass away," I said, kindly.
Then I added, resignedly, for it really seemed to me that I must
accept the situation, "Well, so it is, and it can't be helped.
I must renounce." Miss Tita, at this, looking at me, gave a low,
soft moan, and I went on: "I only wish to heaven she had
destroyed them; then there would be nothing more to say.
And I can't understand why, with her ideas, she didn't."
"Oh, she lived on them!" said Miss Tita.
"You can imagine whether that makes me want less to see them,"
I answered, smiling. "But don't let me stand here as if I
had it in my soul to tempt you to do anything base.
Naturally you will understand if I give up my rooms.
I leave Venice immediately." And I took up my hat, which I
had placed on a chair. We were still there rather awkwardly,
on our feet, in the middle of the sala. She had left
the door of the apartments open behind her but she had not led
me that way.
A kind of spasm came into her face as she saw me take my hat.
"Immediately--do you mean today?" The tone of the words was tragical--
they were a cry of desolation.
"Oh, no; not so long as I can be of the least service to you."
"Well, just a day or two more--just two or three days," she panted.
Then controlling herself, she added in another manner, "She wanted
to say something to me--the last day--something very particular,
but she couldn't."
"Something very particular?"
"Something more about the papers."
"And did you guess--have you any idea?"
"No, I have thought--but I don't know. I have thought all kinds of things."
"And for instance?"
"Well, that if you were a relation it would be different."
"If I were a relation?"
"If you were not a stranger. Then it would be the same for you as for me.
Anything that is mine--would be yours, and you could do what you like.
I couldn't prevent you--and you would have no responsibility."
She brought out this droll explanation with a little nervous rush,
as if she were speaking words she had got by heart. They gave
me an impression of subtlety and at first I failed to follow.
But after a moment her face helped me to see further,
and then a light came into my mind. It was embarrassing,
and I bent my head over Jeffrey Aspern's portrait.
What an odd expression was in his face! "Get out of it as
you can, my dear fellow!" I put the picture into the pocket
of my coat and said to Miss Tita, "Yes, I'll sell it for you.
I shan't get a thousand pounds by any means, but I shall
get something good."
She looked at me with tears in her eyes, but she seemed to try to smile
as she remarked, "We can divide the money."
"No, no, it shall be all yours." Then I went on, "I think I know
what your poor aunt wanted to say. She wanted to give directions
that her papers should be buried with her."
Miss Tita appeared to consider this suggestion for a moment;
after which she declared, with striking decision, "Oh no,
she wouldn't have thought that safe!"
"It seems to me nothing could be safer."
"She had an idea that when people want to publish they are capable--"
And she paused, blushing.
"Of violating a tomb? Mercy on us, what must she have thought of me!"
"She was not just, she was not generous!" Miss Tita cried
with sudden passion.
The light that had come into my mind a moment before increased.
"Ah, don't say that, for we ARE a dreadful race."
Then I pursued, "If she left a will, that may give you some idea."
"I have found nothing of the sort--she destroyed it.
She was very fond of me," Miss Tita added incongruously.
"She wanted me to be happy. And if any person should be kind to me--
she wanted to speak of that."
I was almost awestricken at the astuteness with which
the good lady found herself inspired, transparent astuteness
as it was and sewn, as the phrase is, with white thread.
"Depend upon it she didn't want to make any provision that would
be agreeable to me."
"No, not to you but to me. She knew I should like it if you could
carry out your idea. Not because she cared for you but because
she did think of me," Miss Tita went on with her unexpected,
persuasive volubility. "You could see them--you could use them."
She stopped, seeing that I perceived the sense of that conditional--
stopped long enough for me to give some sign which I did not give.
She must have been conscious, however, that though my face showed
the greatest embarrassment that was ever painted on a human countenance
it was not set as a stone, it was also full of compassion.
It was a comfort to me a long time afterward to consider that she
could not have seen in me the smallest symptom of disrespect.
"I don't know what to do; I'm too tormented, I'm too ashamed!"
she continued with vehemence. Then turning away from me and burying
her face in her hands she burst into a flood of tears. If she did
not know what to do it may be imagined whether I did any better.
I stood there dumb, watching her while her sobs resounded in the great
empty hall. In a moment she was facing me again, with her streaming eyes.
"I would give you everything--and she would understand, where she is--
she would forgive me!"
"Ah, Miss Tita--ah, Miss Tita," I stammered, for all reply.
I did not know what to do, as I say, but at a venture I made a wild,
vague movement in consequence of which I found myself at the door.
I remember standing there and saying, "It wouldn't do--it wouldn't do!"
pensively, awkwardly, grotesquely, while I looked away to the opposite
end of the sala as if there were a beautiful view there.
The next thing I remember is that I was downstairs and out of the house.
My gondola was there and my gondolier, reclining on the cushions,
sprang up as soon as he saw me. I jumped in and to his usual
"Dove commanda?" I replied, in a tone that made him stare,
"Anywhere, anywhere; out into the lagoon!"
He rowed me away and I sat there prostrate, groaning softly
to myself, with my hat pulled over my face. What in the name
of the preposterous did she mean if she did not mean to offer me
her hand? That was the price--that was the price! And did she
think I wanted it, poor deluded, infatuated, extravagant lady?
My gondolier, behind me, must have seen my ears red as I wondered,
sitting there under the fluttering tenda, with my
hidden face, noticing nothing as we passed--wondered whether
her delusion, her infatuation had been my own reckless work.
Did she think I had made love to her, even to get the papers?
I had not, I had not; I repeated that over to myself for an hour,
for two hours, till I was wearied if not convinced.
I don't know where my gondolier took me; we floated aimlessly
about in the lagoon, with slow, rare strokes. At last I became
conscious that we were near the Lido, far up, on the right hand,
as you turn your back to Venice, and I made him put me ashore.
I wanted to walk, to move, to shed some of my bewilderment.
I crossed the narrow strip and got to the sea beach--I took my
way toward Malamocco. But presently I flung myself down again
on the warm sand, in the breeze, on the coarse dry grass.
It took it out of me to think I had been so much at fault,
that I had unwittingly but nonetheless deplorably trifled.
But I had not given her cause--distinctly I had not.
I had said to Mrs. Prest that I would make love to her;
but it had been a joke without consequences and I had never
said it to Tita Bordereau. I had been as kind as possible,
because I really liked her; but since when had that become a crime
where a woman of such an age and such an appearance was concerned?
I am far from remembering clearly the succession of events and
feelings during this long day of confusion, which I spent entirely
in wandering about, without going home, until late at night;
it only comes back to me that there were moments when I
pacified my conscience and others when I lashed it into pain.
I did not laugh all day--that I do recollect; the case, however it
might have struck others, seemed to me so little amusing.
It would have been better perhaps for me to feel the comic
side of it. At any rate, whether I had given cause or not
it went without saying that I could not pay the price.
I could not accept. I could not, for a bundle of tattered papers,
marry a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman.
it was a proof that she did not think the idea would come to me,
her having determined to suggest it herself in that practical,
argumentative, heroic way, in which the timidity however had
been so much more striking than the boldness that her reasons
appeared to come first and her feelings afterward.
As the day went on I grew to wish that I had never
heard of Aspern's relics, and I cursed the extravagant
curiosity that had put John Cumnor on the scent of them.
We had more than enough material without them, and my
predicament was the just punishment of that most fatal
of human follies, our not having known when to stop.
It was very well to say it was no predicament, that the way
out was simple, that I had only to leave Venice by the first
train in the morning, after writing a note to Miss Tita,
to be placed in her hand as soon as I got clear of the house;
for it was a strong sign that I was embarrassed that when I
tried to make up the note in my mind in advance (I would put it
on paper as soon as I got home, before going to bed), I could
not think of anything but "How can I thank you for the rare
confidence you have placed in me?" That would never do;
it sounded exactly as if an acceptance were to follow.
Of course I might go away without writing a word, but that would
be brutal and my idea was still to exclude brutal solutions.
As my confusion cooled I was lost in wonder at the importance I
had attached to Miss Bordereau's crumpled scraps; the thought
of them became odious to me, and I was as vexed with the old
witch for the superstition that had prevented her from destroying
them as I was with myself for having already spent more money
than I could afford in attempting to control their fate.
I forget what I did, where I went after leaving the Lido
and at what hour or with what recovery of composure I made
my way back to my boat. I only know that in the afternoon,
when the air was aglow with the sunset, I was standing
before the church of Saints John and Paul and looking up
at the small square-jawed face of Bartolommeo Colleoni,
the terrible condottiere who sits so sturdily astride
of his huge bronze horse, on the high pedestal on which
Venetian gratitude maintains him. The statue is incomparable,
the finest of all mounted figures, unless that of Marcus Aurelius,
who rides benignant before the Roman Capitol, be finer:
but I was not thinking of that; I only found myself staring
at the triumphant captain as if he had an oracle on his lips.
The western light shines into all his grimness at that hour
and makes it wonderfully personal. But he continued to look
far over my head, at the red immersion of another day--
he had seen so many go down into the lagoon through the centuries--
and if he were thinking of battles and stratagems they
were of a different quality from any I had to tell him of.
He could not direct me what to do, gaze up at him as I might.
Was it before this or after that I wandered about for an hour
in the small canals, to the continued stupefaction of my gondolier,
who had never seen me so restless and yet so void of a purpose and
could extract from me no order but "Go anywhere--everywhere--all over
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