"Our house is very far from the center, but the little canal is very comme i_aut."
"It's the sweetest corner of Venice and I can imagine nothing more charming,"
I hastened to reply. The old lady's voice was very thin and weak, but it ha_n agreeable, cultivated murmur, and there was wonder in the thought that tha_ndividual note had been in Jeffrey Aspern's ear.
"Please to sit down there. I hear very well," she said quietly, as if perhap_ had been shouting at her; and the chair she pointed to was at a certai_istance. I took possession of it, telling her that I was perfectly aware tha_ had intruded, that I had not been properly introduced and could only thro_yself upon her indulgence. Perhaps the other lady, the one I had had th_onor of seeing the day before, would have explained to her about the garden.
That was literally what had given me courage to take a step so unconventional.
I had fallen in love at sight with the whole place (she herself probably wa_o used to it that she did not know the impression it was capable of making o_ stranger), and I had felt it was really a case to risk something. Was he_wn kindness in receiving me a sign that I was not wholly out in m_alculation? It would render me extremely happy to think so. I could give he_y word of honor that I was a most respectable, inoffensive person and that a_n inmate they would be barely conscious of my existence. I would conform t_ny regulations, any restrictions if they would only let me enjoy the garden.
Moreover I should be delighted to give her references, guarantees; they woul_e of the very best, both in Venice and in England as well as in America.
She listened to me in perfect stillness and I felt that she was looking at m_ith great attention, though I could see only the lower part of her bleache_nd shriveled face. Independently of the refining process of old age it had _elicacy which once must have been great. She had been very fair, she had ha_ wonderful complexion. She was silent a little after I had ceased speaking; then she inquired, "If you are so fond of a garden why don't you go to terr_irma, where there are so many far better than this?"
"Oh, it's the combination!" I answered, smiling; and then, with rather _light of fancy, "It's the idea of a garden in the middle of the sea."
"It's not in the middle of the sea; you can't see the water."
I stared a moment, wondering whether she wished to convict me of fraud. "Can'_ee the water? Why, dear madam, I can come up to the very gate in my boat."
She appeared inconsequent, for she said vaguely in reply to this, "Yes, if yo_ave got a boat. I haven't any; it's many years since I have been in one o_he gondolas." She uttered these words as if the gondolas were a curiou_araway craft which she knew only by hearsay.
"Let me assure you of the pleasure with which I would put mine at you_ervice!" I exclaimed. I had scarcely said this, however, before I becam_ware that the speech was in questionable taste and might also do me th_njury of making me appear too eager, too possessed of a hidden motive. Bu_he old woman remained impenetrable and her attitude bothered me by suggestin_hat she had a fuller vision of me than I had of her. She gave me no thank_or my somewhat extravagant offer but remarked that the lady I had seen th_ay before was her niece; she would presently come in. She had asked her t_tay away a little on purpose, because she herself wished to see me at firs_lone. She relapsed into silence, and I asked myself why she had judged thi_ecessary and what was coming yet; also whether I might venture on som_udicious remark in praise of her companion. I went so far as to say that _hould be delighted to see her again: she had been so very courteous to me, considering how odd she must have thought me—a declaration which drew fro_iss Bordereau another of her whimsical speeches.
"She has very good manners; I bred her up myself!" I was on the point o_aying that that accounted for the easy grace of the niece, but I arreste_yself in time, and the next moment the old woman went on: "I don't care wh_ou may be—I don't want to know; it signifies very little today." This had al_he air of being a formula of dismissal, as if her next words would be that _ight take myself off now that she had had the amusement of looking on th_ace of such a monster of indiscretion. Therefore I was all the more surprise_hen she added, with her soft, venerable quaver, "You may have as many room_s you like—if you will pay a good deal of money."
I hesitated but for a single instant, long enough to ask myself what she mean_n particular by this condition. First it struck me that she must have reall_ large sum in her mind; then I reasoned quickly that her idea of a large su_ould probably not correspond to my own. My deliberation, I think, was not s_isible as to diminish the promptitude with which I replied, "I will pay wit_leasure and of course in advance whatever you may think is proper to ask me."
"Well then, a thousand francs a month," she rejoined instantly, while he_affling green shade continued to cover her attitude.
The figure, as they say, was startling and my logic had been at fault. The su_he had mentioned was, by the Venetian measure of such matters, exceedingl_arge; there was many an old palace in an out-of-the-way corner that I migh_n such terms have enjoyed by the year. But so far as my small means allowed _as prepared to spend money, and my decision was quickly taken. I would pa_er with a smiling face what she asked, but in that case I would give mysel_he compensation of extracting the papers from her for nothing. Moreover i_he had asked five times as much I should have risen to the occasion; s_dious would it have appeared to me to stand chaffering with Aspern's Juliana.
It was queer enough to have a question of money with her at all. I assured he_hat her views perfectly met my own and that on the morrow I should have th_leasure of putting three months' rent into her hand. She received thi_nnouncement with serenity and with no apparent sense that after all it woul_e becoming of her to say that I ought to see the rooms first. This did no_ccur to her and indeed her serenity was mainly what I wanted. Our littl_argain was just concluded when the door opened and the younger lady appeare_n the threshold. As soon as Miss Bordereau saw her niece she cried out almos_aily, "He will give three thousand—three thousand tomorrow!"
Miss Tita stood still, with her patient eyes turning from one of us to th_ther; then she inquired, scarcely above her breath, "Do you mean francs?"
"Did you mean francs or dollars?" the old woman asked of me at this.
"I think francs were what you said," I answered, smiling.
"That is very good," said Miss Tita, as if she had become conscious that he_wn question might have looked overreaching.
"What do YOU know? You are ignorant," Miss Bordereau remarked; not wit_cerbity but with a strange, soft coldness.
"Yes, of money—certainly of money!" Miss Tita hastened to exclaim.
"I am sure you have your own branches of knowledge," I took the liberty o_aying, genially. There was something painful to me, somehow, in the turn th_onversation had taken, in the discussion of the rent.
"She had a very good education when she was young. I looked into that myself,"
said Miss Bordereau. Then she added, "But she has learned nothing since."
"I have always been with you," Miss Tita rejoined very mildly, and evidentl_ith no intention of making an epigram.
"Yes, but for that!" her aunt declared with more satirical force. Sh_vidently meant that but for this her niece would never have got on at all; the point of the observation however being lost on Miss Tita, though sh_lushed at hearing her history revealed to a stranger. Miss Bordereau went on, addressing herself to me: "And what time will you come tomorrow with th_oney?"
"The sooner the better. If it suits you I will come at noon."
"I am always here but I have my hours," said the old woman, as if he_onvenience were not to be taken for granted.
"You mean the times when you receive?"
"I never receive. But I will see you at noon, when you come with the money."
"Very good, I shall be punctual;" and I added, "May I shake hands with you, o_ur contract?" I thought there ought to be some little form, it would make m_eally feel easier, for I foresaw that there would be no other. Besides, though Miss Bordereau could not today be called personally attractive an_here was something even in her wasted antiquity that bade one stand at one'_istance, I felt an irresistible desire to hold in my own for a moment th_and that Jeffrey Aspern had pressed.
For a minute she made no answer, and I saw that my proposal failed to mee_ith her approbation. She indulged in no movement of withdrawal, which I half- expected; she only said coldly, "I belong to a time when that was not th_ustom."
I felt rather snubbed but I exclaimed good humoredly to Miss Tita, "Oh, yo_ill do as well!" I shook hands with her while she replied, with a smal_lutter, "Yes, yes, to show it's all arranged!"
"Shall you bring the money in gold?" Miss Bordereau demanded, as I was turnin_o the door.
I looked at her for a moment. "Aren't you a little afraid, after all, o_eeping such a sum as that in the house?" It was not that I was annoyed at he_vidity but I was really struck with the disparity between such a treasure an_uch scanty means of guarding it.
"Whom should I be afraid of if I am not afraid of you?" she asked with he_hrunken grimness.
"Ah well," said I, laughing, "I shall be in point of fact a protector and _ill bring gold if you prefer."
"Thank you," the old woman returned with dignity and with an inclination o_er head which evidently signified that I might depart. I passed out of th_oom, reflecting that it would not be easy to circumvent her. As I stood i_he sala again I saw that Miss Tita had followed me, and I supposed that a_er aunt had neglected to suggest that I should take a look at my quarters i_as her purpose to repair the omission. But she made no such suggestion; sh_nly stood there with a dim, though not a languid smile, and with an effect o_rresponsible, incompetent youth which was almost comically at variance wit_he faded facts of her person. She was not infirm, like her aunt, but sh_truck me as still more helpless, because her inefficiency was spiritual, which was not the case with Miss Bordereau's. I waited to see if she woul_ffer to show me the rest of the house, but I did not precipitate th_uestion, inasmuch as my plan was from this moment to spend as much of my tim_s possible in her society. I only observed at the end of a minute:
"I have had better fortune than I hoped. It was very kind of her to see me.
Perhaps you said a good word for me."
"It was the idea of the money," said Miss Tita.
"And did you suggest that?"
"I told her that you would perhaps give a good deal."
"What made you think that?"
"I told her I thought you were rich."
"And what put that idea into your head?"
"I don't know; the way you talked."
"Dear me, I must talk differently now," I declared. "I'm sorry to say it's no_he case."
"Well," said Miss Tita, "I think that in Venice the forestieri, in general, often give a great deal for something that after all isn't much." She appeare_o make this remark with a comforting intention, to wish to remind me that i_ had been extravagant I was not really foolishly singular. We walked togethe_long the sala, and as I took its magnificent measure I said to her that I wa_fraid it would not form a part of my quartiere. Were my rooms by chance to b_mong those that opened into it? "Not if you go above, on the second floor,"
she answered with a little startled air, as if she had rather taken fo_ranted I would know my proper place.
"And I infer that that's where your aunt would like me to be."
"She said your apartments ought to be very distinct."
"That certainly would be best." And I listened with respect while she told m_hat up above I was free to take whatever I liked; that there was anothe_taircase, but only from the floor on which we stood, and that to pass from i_o the garden-story or to come up to my lodging I should have in effect t_ross the great hall. This was an immense point gained; I foresaw that i_ould constitute my whole leverage in my relations with the two ladies. When _sked Miss Tita how I was to manage at present to find my way up she replie_ith an access of that sociable shyness which constantly marked her manner.
"Perhaps you can't. I don't see—unless I should go with you." She evidentl_ad not thought of this before.
We ascended to the upper floor and visited a long succession of empty rooms.
The best of them looked over the garden; some of the others had a view of th_lue lagoon, above the opposite rough-tiled housetops. They were all dusty an_ven a little disfigured with long neglect, but I saw that by spending a fe_undred francs I should be able to convert three or four of them into _onvenient habitation. My experiment was turning out costly, yet now that _ad all but taken possession I ceased to allow this to trouble me. I mentione_o my companion a few of the things that I should put in, but she replie_ather more precipitately than usual that I might do exactly what I liked; sh_eemed to wish to notify me that the Misses Bordereau would take no over_nterest in my proceedings. I guessed that her aunt had instructed her t_dopt this tone, and I may as well say now that I came afterward t_istinguish perfectly (as I believed) between the speeches she made on her ow_esponsibility and those the old lady imposed upon her. She took no notice o_he unswept condition of the rooms and indulged in no explanations no_pologies. I said to myself that this was a sign that Juliana and her niece (disenchanting idea!) were untidy persons, with a low Italian standard; but _fterward recognized that a lodger who had forced an entrance had no locu_tandi as a critic. We looked out of a good many windows, for there wa_othing within the rooms to look at, and still I wanted to linger. I asked he_hat several different objects in the prospect might be, but in no case di_he appear to know. She was evidently not familiar with the view—it was as i_he had not looked at it for years—and I presently saw that she was to_reoccupied with something else to pretend to care for it. Suddenly sh_aid—the remark was not suggested:
"I don't know whether it will make any difference to you, but the money is fo_e."
"The money you are going to bring."
"Why, you'll make me wish to stay here two or three years." I spoke a_enevolently as possible, though it had begun to act on my nerves that wit_hese women so associated with Aspern the pecuniary question should constantl_ome back.
"That would be very good for me," she replied, smiling.
"You put me on my honor!"
She looked as if she failed to understand this, but went on: "She wants me t_ave more. She thinks she is going to die."
"Ah, not soon, I hope!" I exclaimed with genuine feeling. I had perfectl_onsidered the possibility that she would destroy her papers on the day sh_hould feel her end really approach. I believed that she would cling to the_ill then, and I think I had an idea that she read Aspern's letters over ever_ight or at least pressed them to her withered lips. I would have given a goo_eal to have a glimpse of the latter spectacle. I asked Miss Tita if the ol_ady were seriously ill, and she replied that she was only very tired—she ha_ived so very, very long. That was what she said herself—she wanted to die fo_ change. Besides, all her friends were dead long ago; either they ought t_ave remained or she ought to have gone. That was another thing her aunt ofte_aid—she was not at all content.
"But people don't die when they like, do they?" Miss Tita inquired. I took th_iberty of asking why, if there was actually enough money to maintain both o_hem, there would not be more than enough in case of her being left alone. Sh_onsidered this difficult problem a moment and then she said, "Oh, well, yo_now, she takes care of me. She thinks that when I'm alone I shall be a grea_ool, I shall not know how to manage."
"I should have supposed that you took care of her. I'm afraid she is ver_roud."
"Why, have you discovered that already?" Miss Tita cried with the glimmer o_n illumination in her face.
"I was shut up with her there for a considerable time, and she struck me, sh_nterested me extremely. It didn't take me long to make my discovery. Sh_on't have much to say to me while I'm here."
"No, I don't think she will," my companion averred.
"Do you suppose she has some suspicion of me?"
Miss Tita's honest eyes gave me no sign that I had touched a mark. "_houldn't think so—letting you in after all so easily."
"Oh, so easily! she has covered her risk. But where is it that one could tak_n advantage of her?"
"I oughtn't to tell you if I knew, ought I?" And Miss Tita added, before I ha_ime to reply to this, smiling dolefully, "Do you think we have any wea_oints?"
"That's exactly what I'm asking. You would only have to mention them for me t_espect them religiously."
She looked at me, at this, with that air of timid but candid and eve_ratified curiosity with which she had confronted me from the first; and the_he said, "There is nothing to tell. We are terribly quiet. I don't know ho_he days pass. We have no life."
"I wish I might think that I should bring you a little."
"Oh, we know what we want," she went on. "It's all right."
There were various things I desired to ask her: how in the world they di_ive; whether they had any friends or visitors, any relations in America or i_ther countries. But I judged such an inquiry would be premature; I must leav_t to a later chance. "Well, don't YOU be proud," I contented myself wit_aying. "Don't hide from me altogether."
"Oh, I must stay with my aunt," she returned, without looking at me. And a_he same moment, abruptly, without any ceremony of parting, she quitted me an_isappeared, leaving me to make my own way downstairs. I remained a whil_onger, wandering about the bright desert (the sun was pouring in) of the ol_ouse, thinking the situation over on the spot. Not even the pattering littl_erva came to look after me, and I reflected that after all this treatmen_howed confidence.