THE ASPERN PAPERS
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?” I inquired.
“Don’t you mean shouldn’t you have a better chance at me?” she returned, fixing me a moment with her green shade.
“Ah, I haven’t that anywhere! I look at you but I don’t see you.”
“You excite her dreadfully—and that is not good,” said Miss Tita, giving me a reproachful, appealing look.
“I want to watch you—I want to watch you!” the old lady went on.
“Well then, let us spend as much of our time together as possible— I don’t care where—and that will give you every facility.”
“Oh, I’ve seen you enough for today. I’m satisfied. Now I’ll go home.” Miss Tita laid her hands on the back of her aunt’s chair and began to push, but I begged her to let me take her place. “Oh, yes, you may move me this way—you shan’t in any other!” Miss Bordereau exclaimed as she felt herself propelled firmly and easily over the smooth, hard floor. Before we reached the door of her own apartment she commanded me to stop, and she took a long, last look up and down the noble sala. “Oh, it’s a magnificent house!” she murmured; after which I pushed her forward. When we had entered the parlor Miss Tita told me that she should now be able to manage, and at the same moment the little red–haired donna came to meet her mistress. Miss Tita’s idea was evidently to get her aunt immediately back to bed. I confess that in spite of this urgency I was guilty of the indiscretion of lingering; it held me there to think that I was nearer the documents I coveted— that they were probably put away somewhere in the faded, unsociable room. The place had indeed a bareness which did not suggest hidden treasures; there were no dusky nooks nor curtained corners, no massive cabinets nor chests with iron bands. Moreover it was possible, it was perhaps even probable that the old lady had consigned her relics to her bedroom, to some battered box that was shoved under the bed, to the drawer of some lame dressing table, where they would be in the range of vision by the dim night lamp. Nonetheless I scrutinized every article of furniture, every conceivable cover for a hoard, and noticed that there were half a dozen things with drawers, and in particular a tall old secretary, with brass ornaments of the style of the Empire—a receptacle somewhat rickety but still capable of keeping a great many secrets. I don’t know why this article fascinated me so, inasmuch as I certainly had no definite purpose of breaking into it; but I stared at it so hard that Miss Tita noticed me and changed color. Her doing this made me think I was right and that wherever they might have been before the Aspern papers at that moment languished behind the peevish little lock of the secretary. it was hard to remove my eyes from the dull mahogany front when I reflected that a simple panel divided me from the goal of my hopes; but I remembered my prudence and with an effort took leave of Miss Bordereau. To make the effort graceful I said to her that I should certainly bring her an opinion about the little picture.
“The little picture?” Miss Tita asked, surprised.
“What do YOU know about it, my dear?” the old woman demanded. “You needn’t mind. I have fixed my price.”
“And what may that be?”
“A thousand pounds.”
“Oh Lord!” cried poor Miss Tita irrepressibly.
“Is that what she talks to you about?” said Miss Bordereau.
“Imagine your aunt’s wanting to know!” I had to separate from Miss Tita with only those words, though I should have liked immensely to add, “For heaven’s sake meet me tonight in the garden!”