THE ASPERN PAPERS
One afternoon, as I came down from my quarters to go out, I found Miss Tita in the sala: it was our first encounter on that ground since I had come to the house. She put on no air of being there by accident; there was an ignorance of such arts in her angular, diffident directness. That I might be quite sure she was waiting for me she informed me of the fact and told me that Miss Bordereau wished to see me: she would take me into the room at that moment if I had time. If I had been late for a love tryst I would have stayed for this, and I quickly signified that I should be delighted to wait upon the old lady. “She wants to talk with you—to know you,” Miss Tita said, smiling as if she herself appreciated that idea; and she led me to the door of her aunt’s apartment. I stopped her a moment before she had opened it, looking at her with some curiosity. I told her that this was a great satisfaction to me and a great honor; but all the same I should like to ask what had made Miss Bordereau change so suddenly. It was only the other day that she wouldn’t suffer me near her. Miss Tita was not embarrassed by my question; she had as many little unexpected serenities as if she told fibs, but the odd part of them was that they had on the contrary their source in her truthfulness. “Oh, my aunt changes,” she answered; “it’s so terribly dull—I suppose she’s tired.”
“But you told me that she wanted more and more to be alone.”
Poor Miss Tita colored, as if she found me over–insistent. “Well, if you don’t believe she wants to see you—I haven’t invented it! I think people often are capricious when they are very old.”
“That’s perfectly true. I only wanted to be clear as to whether you have repeated to her what I told you the other night.”
“What you told me?”
“About Jeffrey Aspern—that I am looking for materials.”
“If I had told her do you think she would have sent for you?”
“That’s exactly what I want to know. If she wants to keep him to herself she might have sent for me to tell me so.”
“She won’t speak of him,” said Miss Tita. Then as she opened the door she added in a lower tone, “I have told her nothing.”
The old woman was sitting in the same place in which I had seen her last, in the same position, with the same mystifying bandage over her eyes. her welcome was to turn her almost invisible face to me and show me that while she sat silent she saw me clearly. I made no motion to shake hands with her; I felt too well on this occasion that that was out of place forever. It had been sufficiently enjoined upon me that she was too sacred for that sort of reciprocity—too venerable to touch. There was something so grim in her aspect (it was partly the accident of her green shade), as I stood there to be measured, that I ceased on the spot to feel any doubt as to her knowing my secret, though I did not in the least suspect that Miss Tita had not just spoken the truth. She had not betrayed me, but the old woman’s brooding instinct had served her; she had turned me over and over in the long, still hours, and she had guessed. The worst of it was that she looked terribly like an old woman who at a pinch would burn her papers. Miss Tita pushed a chair forward, saying to me, “This will be a good place for you to sit.” As I took possession of it I asked after Miss Bordereau’s health; expressed the hope that in spite of the very hot weather it was satisfactory. She replied that it was good enough—good enough; that it was a great thing to be alive.
“Oh, as to that, it depends upon what you compare it with!” I exclaimed, laughing.
“I don’t compare—I don’t compare. If I did that I should have given everything up long ago.”
I liked to think that this was a subtle allusion to the rapture she had known in the society of Jeffrey Aspern—though it was true that such an allusion would have accorded ill with the wish I imputed to her to keep him buried in her soul. What it accorded with was my constant conviction that no human being had ever had a more delightful social gift than his, and what it seemed to convey was that nothing in the world was worth speaking of if one pretended to speak of that. But one did not! Miss Tita sat down beside her aunt, looking as if she had reason to believe some very remarkable conversation would come off between us.
“It’s about the beautiful flowers,” said the old lady; “you sent us so many—I ought to have thanked you for them before. But I don’t write letters and I receive only at long intervals.”
She had not thanked me while the flowers continued to come, but she departed from her custom so far as to send for me as soon as she began to fear that they would not come any more. I noted this; I remembered what an acquisitive propensity she had shown when it was a question of extracting gold from me, and I privately rejoiced at the happy thought I had had in suspending my tribute. She had missed it and she was willing to make a concession to bring it back. At the first sign of this concession I could only go to meet her. “I am afraid you have not had many, of late, but they shall begin again immediately—tomorrow, tonight.”
“Oh, do send us some tonight!” Miss Tita cried, as if it were an immense circumstance.
“What else should you do with them? It isn’t a manly taste to make a bower of your room,” the old woman remarked.
“I don’t make a bower of my room, but I am exceedingly fond of growing flowers, of watching their ways. There is nothing unmanly in that: it has been the amusement of philosophers, of statesmen in retirement; even I think of great captains.”
“I suppose you know you can sell them—those you don’t use,” Miss Bordereau went on. “I daresay they wouldn’t give you much for them; still, you could make a bargain.”
“Oh, I have never made a bargain, as you ought to know. My gardener disposes of them and I ask no questions.”
“I would ask a few, I can promise you!” said Miss Bordereau; and it was the first time I had heard her laugh. I could not get used to the idea that this vision of pecuniary profit was what drew out the divine Juliana most.
“Come into the garden yourself and pick them; come as often as you like; come every day. They are all for you,” I pursued, addressing Miss Tita and carrying off this veracious statement by treating it as an innocent joke. “I can’t imagine why she doesn’t come down,” I added, for Miss Bordereau’s benefit.
“You must make her come; you must come up and fetch her,” said the old woman, to my stupefaction. “That odd thing you have made in the corner would be a capital place for her to sit.”
The allusion to my arbor was irreverent; it confirmed the impression I had already received that there was a flicker of impertinence in Miss Bordereau’s talk, a strange mocking lambency which must have been a part of her adventurous youth and which had outlived passions and faculties. Nonetheless I asked, “Wouldn’t it be possible for you to come down there yourself? Wouldn’t it do you good to sit there in the shade, in the sweet air?”
“Oh, sir, when I move out of this it won’t be to sit in the air, and I’m afraid that any that may be stirring around me won’t be particularly sweet! It will be a very dark shade indeed. But that won’t be just yet,” Miss Bordereau continued cannily, as if to correct any hopes that this courageous allusion to the last receptacle of her mortality might lead me to entertain. “I have sat here many a day and I have had enough of arbors in my time. But I’m not afraid to wait till I’m called.”
Miss Tita had expected some interesting talk, but perhaps she found it less genial on her aunt’s side (considering that I had been sent for with a civil intention) than she had hoped. As if to give the conversation a turn that would put our companion in a light more favorable she said to me, “Didn’t I tell you the other night that she had sent me out? You see that I can do what I like!”
“Do you pity her—do you teach her to pity herself?” Miss Bordereau demanded before I had time to answer this appeal. “She has a much easier life than I had when I was her age.”
“You must remember that it has been quite open to me to think you rather inhuman.”
“Inhuman? That’s what the poets used to call the women a hundred years ago. Don’t try that; you won’t do as well as they!” Juliana declared. “There is no more poetry in the world—that I know of at least. But I won’t bandy words with you,” she pursued, and I well remember the old–fashioned, artificial sound she gave to the speech. “You have made me talk, talk! It isn’t good for me at all.” I got up at this and told her I would take no more of her time; but she detained me to ask, “Do you remember, the day I saw you about the rooms, that you offered us the use of your gondola?” And when I assented, promptly, struck again with her disposition to make a “good thing” of being there and wondering what she now had in her eye, she broke out, “Why don’t you take that girl out in it and show her the place?”
“Oh, dear Aunt, what do you want to do with me?” cried the “girl” with a piteous quaver. “I know all about the place!”
“Well then, go with him as a cicerone!” said Miss Bordereau with an effort of something like cruelty in her implacable power of retort—an incongruous suggestion that she was a sarcastic, profane, cynical old woman. “Haven’t we heard that there have been all sorts of changes in all these years? You ought to see them and at your age (I don’t mean because you’re so young) you ought to take the chances that come. You’re old enough, my dear, and this gentleman won’t hurt you. He will show you the famous sunsets, if they still go on—DO they go on? The sun set for me so long ago. But that’s not a reason. Besides, I shall never miss you; you think you are too important. Take her to the Piazza; it used to be very pretty,” Miss Bordereau continued, addressing herself to me. “What have they done with the funny old church? I hope it hasn’t tumbled down. let her look at the shops; she may take some money, she may buy what she likes.”
Poor Miss Tita had got up, discountenanced and helpless, and as we stood there before her aunt it would certainly have seemed to a spectator of the scene that the old woman was amusing herself at our expense. Miss Tita protested, in a confusion of exclamations and murmurs; but I lost no time in saying that if she would do me the honor to accept the hospitality of my boat I would engage that she should not be bored. Or if she did not want so much of my company the boat itself, with the gondolier, was at her service; he was a capital oar and she might have every confidence. Miss Tita, without definitely answering this speech, looked away from me, out of the window, as if she were going to cry; and I remarked that once we had Miss Bordereau’s approval we could easily come to an understanding. We would take an hour, whichever she liked, one of the very next days. As I made my obeisance to the old lady I asked her if she would kindly permit me to see her again.
For a moment she said nothing; then she inquired, “Is it very necessary to your happiness?”
“It diverts me more than I can say.”
“You are wonderfully civil. Don’t you know it almost kills ME?”
“How can I believe that when I see you more animated, more brilliant than when I came in?”
“That is very true, Aunt,” said Miss Tita. I think it does you good.”
“Isn’t it touching, the solicitude we each have that the other shall enjoy herself?” sneered Miss Bordereau. “If you think me brilliant today you don’t know what you are talking about; you have never seen an agreeable woman. Don’t try to pay me a compliment; I have been spoiled,” she went on. “My door is shut, but you may sometimes knock.”
With this she dismissed me, and I left the room. The latch closed behind me, but Miss Tita, contrary to my hope, had remained within. I passed slowly across the hall and before taking my way downstairs I waited a little. My hope was answered; after a minute Miss Tita followed me. “That’s a delightful idea about the Piazza,” I said. “When will you go—tonight, tomorrow?”
She had been disconcerted, as I have mentioned, but I had already perceived and I was to observe again that when Miss Tita was embarrassed she did not (as most women would have done) turn away from you and try to escape, but came closer, as it were, with a deprecating, clinging appeal to be spared, to be protected. Her attitude was perpetually a sort of prayer for assistance, for explanation; and yet no woman in the world could have been less of a comedian. From the moment you were kind to her she depended on you absolutely; her self–consciousness dropped from her and she took the greatest intimacy, the innocent intimacy which was the only thing she could conceive, for granted. She told me she did not know what had got into her aunt; she had changed so quickly, she had got some idea. I replied that she must find out what the idea was and then let me know; we would go and have an ice together at Florian’s, and she should tell me while we listened to the band.
“Oh, it will take me a long time to find out!” she said, rather ruefully; and she could promise me this satisfaction neither for that night nor for the next. I was patient now, however, for I felt that I had only to wait; and in fact at the end of the week, one lovely evening after dinner, she stepped into my gondola, to which in honor of the occasion I had attached a second oar.
We swept in the course of five minutes into the Grand Canal; whereupon she uttered a murmur of ecstasy as fresh as if she had been a tourist just arrived. She had forgotten how splendid the great waterway looked on a clear, hot summer evening, and how the sense of floating between marble palaces and reflected lights disposed the mind to sympathetic talk. We floated long and far, and though Miss Tita gave no high–pitched voice to her satisfaction I felt that she surrendered herself. She was more than pleased, she was transported; the whole thing was an immense liberation. The gondola moved with slow strokes, to give her time to enjoy it, and she listened to the plash of the oars, which grew louder and more musically liquid as we passed into narrow canals, as if it were a revelation of Venice. When I asked her how long it was since she had been in a boat she answered, “Oh, I don’t know; a long time—not since my aunt began to be ill.” This was not the only example she gave me of her extreme vagueness about the previous years and the line which marked off the period when Miss Bordereau flourished. I was not at liberty to keep her out too long, but we took a considerable 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.