One afternoon, as I came down from my quarters to go out, I found Miss Tita i_he sala: it was our first encounter on that ground since I had come to th_ouse. She put on no air of being there by accident; there was an ignorance o_uch arts in her angular, diffident directness. That I might be quite sure sh_as waiting for me she informed me of the fact and told me that Miss Borderea_ished to see me: she would take me into the room at that moment if I ha_ime. If I had been late for a love tryst I would have stayed for this, and _uickly signified that I should be delighted to wait upon the old lady. "Sh_ants to talk with you—to know you," Miss Tita said, smiling as if she hersel_ppreciated that idea; and she led me to the door of her aunt's apartment. _topped her a moment before she had opened it, looking at her with som_uriosity. I told her that this was a great satisfaction to me and a grea_onor; but all the same I should like to ask what had made Miss Borderea_hange so suddenly. It was only the other day that she wouldn't suffer me nea_er. Miss Tita was not embarrassed by my question; she had as many littl_nexpected serenities as if she told fibs, but the odd part of them was tha_hey had on the contrary their source in her truthfulness. "Oh, my aun_hanges," 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'_elieve she wants to see you—I haven't invented it! I think people often ar_apricious when they are very old."
"That's perfectly true. I only wanted to be clear as to whether you hav_epeated 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 sh_ight have sent for me to tell me so."
"She won't speak of him," said Miss Tita. Then as she opened the door sh_dded 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, i_he same position, with the same mystifying bandage over her eyes. her welcom_as to turn her almost invisible face to me and show me that while she sa_ilent she saw me clearly. I made no motion to shake hands with her; I fel_oo well on this occasion that that was out of place forever. It had bee_ufficiently enjoined upon me that she was too sacred for that sort o_eciprocity—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 b_easured, that I ceased on the spot to feel any doubt as to her knowing m_ecret, though I did not in the least suspect that Miss Tita had not jus_poken the truth. She had not betrayed me, but the old woman's broodin_nstinct had served her; she had turned me over and over in the long, stil_ours, and she had guessed. The worst of it was that she looked terribly lik_n old woman who at a pinch would burn her papers. Miss Tita pushed a chai_orward, saying to me, "This will be a good place for you to sit." As I too_ossession of it I asked after Miss Bordereau's health; expressed the hop_hat in spite of the very hot weather it was satisfactory. She replied that i_as 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 everythin_p long ago."
I liked to think that this was a subtle allusion to the rapture she had know_n the society of Jeffrey Aspern—though it was true that such an allusio_ould have accorded ill with the wish I imputed to her to keep him buried i_er soul. What it accorded with was my constant conviction that no human bein_ad ever had a more delightful social gift than his, and what it seemed t_onvey was that nothing in the world was worth speaking of if one pretended t_peak of that. But one did not! Miss Tita sat down beside her aunt, looking a_f she had reason to believe some very remarkable conversation would come of_etween us.
"It's about the beautiful flowers," said the old lady; "you sent us so many—_ught to have thanked you for them before. But I don't write letters and _eceive only at long intervals."
She had not thanked me while the flowers continued to come, but she departe_rom her custom so far as to send for me as soon as she began to fear tha_hey would not come any more. I noted this; I remembered what an acquisitiv_ropensity 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 m_ribute. She had missed it and she was willing to make a concession to brin_t back. At the first sign of this concession I could only go to meet her. "_m afraid you have not had many, of late, but they shall begin agai_mmediately—tomorrow, tonight."
"Oh, do send us some tonight!" Miss Tita cried, as if it were an immens_ircumstance.
"What else should you do with them? It isn't a manly taste to make a bower o_our room," the old woman remarked.
"I don't make a bower of my room, but I am exceedingly fond of growin_lowers, of watching their ways. There is nothing unmanly in that: it has bee_he amusement of philosophers, of statesmen in retirement; even I think o_reat captains."
"I suppose you know you can sell them—those you don't use," Miss Borderea_ent on. "I daresay they wouldn't give you much for them; still, you coul_ake a bargain."
"Oh, I have never made a bargain, as you ought to know. My gardener dispose_f them and I ask no questions."
"I would ask a few, I can promise you!" said Miss Bordereau; and it was th_irst time I had heard her laugh. I could not get used to the idea that thi_ision 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; com_very day. They are all for you," I pursued, addressing Miss Tita and carryin_ff this veracious statement by treating it as an innocent joke. "I can'_magine 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 _apital place for her to sit."
The allusion to my arbor was irreverent; it confirmed the impression I ha_lready received that there was a flicker of impertinence in Miss Bordereau'_alk, a strange mocking lambency which must have been a part of he_dventurous youth and which had outlived passions and faculties. Nonetheless _sked, "Wouldn't it be possible for you to come down there yourself? Wouldn'_t 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'_fraid that any that may be stirring around me won't be particularly sweet! I_ill be a very dark shade indeed. But that won't be just yet," Miss Borderea_ontinued cannily, as if to correct any hopes that this courageous allusion t_he last receptacle of her mortality might lead me to entertain. "I have sa_ere many a day and I have had enough of arbors in my time. But I'm not afrai_o wait till I'm called."
Miss Tita had expected some interesting talk, but perhaps she found it les_enial on her aunt's side (considering that I had been sent for with a civi_ntention) than she had hoped. As if to give the conversation a turn tha_ould put our companion in a light more favorable she said to me, "Didn't _ell you the other night that she had sent me out? You see that I can do wha_ like!"
"Do you pity her—do you teach her to pity herself?" Miss Bordereau demande_efore I had time to answer this appeal. "She has a much easier life than _ad when I was her age."
"You must remember that it has been quite open to me to think you rathe_nhuman."
"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 n_ore poetry in the world—that I know of at least. But I won't bandy words wit_ou," she pursued, and I well remember the old-fashioned, artificial sound sh_ave to the speech. "You have made me talk, talk! It isn't good for me a_ll." I got up at this and told her I would take no more of her time; but sh_etained me to ask, "Do you remember, the day I saw you about the rooms, tha_ou offered us the use of your gondola?" And when I assented, promptly, struc_gain with her disposition to make a "good thing" of being there and wonderin_hat she now had in her eye, she broke out, "Why don't you take that girl ou_n it and show her the place?"
"Oh, dear Aunt, what do you want to do with me?" cried the "girl" with _iteous quaver. "I know all about the place!"
"Well then, go with him as a cicerone!" said Miss Bordereau with an effort o_omething like cruelty in her implacable power of retort—an incongruou_uggestion that she was a sarcastic, profane, cynical old woman. "Haven't w_eard that there have been all sorts of changes in all these years? You ough_o see them and at your age (I don't mean because you're so young) you ough_o take the chances that come. You're old enough, my dear, and this gentlema_on't hurt you. He will show you the famous sunsets, if they still go on—D_hey 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 th_iazza; it used to be very pretty," Miss Bordereau continued, addressin_erself to me. "What have they done with the funny old church? I hope i_asn't tumbled down. Let her look at the shops; she may take some money, sh_ay buy what she likes."
Poor Miss Tita had got up, discountenanced and helpless, and as we stood ther_efore her aunt it would certainly have seemed to a spectator of the scen_hat the old woman was amusing herself at our expense. Miss Tita protested, i_ confusion of exclamations and murmurs; but I lost no time in saying that i_he would do me the honor to accept the hospitality of my boat I would engag_hat she should not be bored. Or if she did not want so much of my company th_oat itself, with the gondolier, was at her service; he was a capital oar an_he might have every confidence. Miss Tita, without definitely answering thi_peech, 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 com_o an understanding. We would take an hour, whichever she liked, one of th_ery next days. As I made my obeisance to the old lady I asked her if sh_ould kindly permit me to see her again.
For a moment she said nothing; then she inquired, "Is it very necessary t_our 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 whe_ 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 enjo_erself?" sneered Miss Bordereau. "If you think me brilliant today you don'_now what you are talking about; you have never seen an agreeable woman. Don'_ry to pay me a compliment; I have been spoiled," she went on. "My door i_hut, 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 slowl_cross the hall and before taking my way downstairs I waited a little. My hop_as answered; after a minute Miss Tita followed me. "That's a delightful ide_bout the Piazza," I said. "When will you go—tonight, tomorrow?"
She had been disconcerted, as I have mentioned, but I had already perceive_nd I was to observe again that when Miss Tita was embarrassed she did not (a_ost women would have done) turn away from you and try to escape, but cam_loser, as it were, with a deprecating, clinging appeal to be spared, to b_rotected. Her attitude was perpetually a sort of prayer for assistance, fo_xplanation; 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, th_nnocent 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 s_uickly, she had got some idea. I replied that she must find out what the ide_as 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; an_he could promise me this satisfaction neither for that night nor for th_ext. I was patient now, however, for I felt that I had only to wait; and i_act at the end of the week, one lovely evening after dinner, she stepped int_y 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 sh_ttered a murmur of ecstasy as fresh as if she had been a tourist jus_rrived. She had forgotten how splendid the great waterway looked on a clear, hot summer evening, and how the sense of floating between marble palaces an_eflected lights disposed the mind to sympathetic talk. We floated long an_ar, and though Miss Tita gave no high-pitched voice to her satisfaction _elt that she surrendered herself. She was more than pleased, she wa_ransported; the whole thing was an immense liberation. The gondola moved wit_low strokes, to give her time to enjoy it, and she listened to the plash o_he oars, which grew louder and more musically liquid as we passed into narro_anals, as if it were a revelation of Venice. When I asked her how long it wa_ince she had been in a boat she answered, "Oh, I don't know; a long time—no_ince my aunt began to be ill." This was not the only example she gave me o_er extreme vagueness about the previous years and the line which marked of_he period when Miss Bordereau flourished. I was not at liberty to keep he_ut too long, but we took a considerable GIRL before going to the Piazza. _sked her no questions, keeping the conversation on purpose away from he_omestic situation and the things I wanted to know; I poured treasures o_nformation 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 t_verything I pointed out to her, and never mentioned to me till sometim_fterward that she might be supposed to know Florence better than I, as sh_ad lived there for years with Miss Bordereau. At last she asked, with the sh_mpatience of a child, "Are we not really going to the Piazza? That's what _ant to see!" I immediately gave the order that we should go straight; an_hen 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 th_atter 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 differen_ow."
"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 _hall have more."
"How much does she want you to have?" I asked, laughing. "She ought to fix th_um, so that I may stay till it's made up."
"Oh, that wouldn't please me," said Miss Tita. "It would be unheard of, you_aking 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 u_our 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: "_hink I know what your reasons are!"
"I daresay, because the other night I almost told you how I wish you woul_elp 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 ha_een 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, _udden lapse into gloom.
These words caused all my pulses to throb, for I regarded them as preciou_vidence. For some minutes I was too agitated to speak, and in the interva_he gondola approached the Piazzetta. After we had disembarked I asked m_ompanion whether she would rather walk round the square or go and sit at th_oor of the cafe; to which she replied that she would do whichever I like_est— I must only remember again how little time she had. I assured her ther_as plenty to do both, and we made the circuit of the long arcades. He_pirits revived at the sight of the bright shop windows, and she lingered an_topped, admiring or disapproving of their contents, asking me what I though_f things, theorizing about prices. My attention wandered from her; her word_f a while before, "Oh, she has got everything!" echoed so in m_onsciousness. We sat down at last in the crowded circle at Florian's, findin_n unoccupied table among those that were ranged in the square. It was _plendid night and all the world was out-of-doors; Miss Tita could not hav_ished the elements more auspicious for her return to society. I saw that sh_njoyed it even more than she told; she was agitated with the multitude of he_mpressions. She had forgotten what an attractive thing the world is, and i_as coming over her that somehow she had for the best years of her life bee_heated of it. This did not make her angry; but as she looked all over th_harming scene her face had, in spite of its smile of appreciation, the flus_f a sort of wounded surprise. She became silent, as if she were thinking wit_ secret sadness of opportunities, forever lost, which ought to have bee_asy; and this gave me a chance to say to her, "Did you mean a while ago tha_our aunt has a plan of keeping me on by admitting me occasionally to he_resence?"
"She thinks it will make a difference with you if you sometimes see her. Sh_ants 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 tol_er 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 makin_his further one," I went on: "that I must have a particular reason for no_oing as others do, in spite of the interest she offers—for not leaving he_lone." Miss Tita looked as if she failed to grasp this rather complicate_roposition; so I continued, "If you have not told her what I said to you th_ther 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 trouble_ace. "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 wa_peaking the truth.
Her extreme limpidity was almost provoking, and I felt for the moment that sh_ould have been more satisfactory if she had been less ingenuous. "Do yo_uppose it's something to which Jeffrey Aspern's letters and papers— I mea_he things in her possession—have reference?"
"I daresay it is!" my companion exclaimed as if this were a very happ_uggestion. "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 _ave 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 o_he 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 o_onfession of helplessness, an appeal to me to deal fairly, generously wit_er. 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 perceiv_hat all this had been a bribe— a bribe to make her turn in some way agains_er aunt. She was of a yielding nature and capable of doing almost anything t_lease a person who was kind to her; but the greatest kindness of all would b_ot to presume too much on this. It was strange enough, as I afterwar_hought, that she had not the least air of resenting my want of consideratio_or her aunt's character, which would have been in the worst possible taste i_nything less vital (from my point of view) had been at stake. I don't thin_he really measured it. "Do you mean that she did something bad?" she asked i_ moment.
"Heaven forbid I should say so, and it's none of my business. Besides, if sh_id," I added, laughing, "it was in other ages, in another world. But wh_hould 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 he_ntention. "Oh, I mean that you might let me see them and look them over. I_sn't for myself; there is no personal avidity in my desire. It is simply tha_hey would be of such immense interest to the public, such immeasurabl_mportance as a contribution to Jeffrey Aspern's history."
She listened to me in her usual manner, as if my speech were full of referenc_o things she had never heard of, and I felt particularly like the reporter o_ newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning. This was especiall_he case when after a moment she said. "There was a gentleman who some tim_go 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 he_ectitude.
"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! _han't ask you to steal for me, nor even to fib—for you can't fib, unless o_aper. But the principal thing is this—to prevent her from destroying th_apers."
"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 woul_aturally destroy her letters would be to burn them. Now she can't burn the_ithout 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 _hought it best not to sound that note. So I simply inquired if that faithfu_omestic could not be managed.
"Everyone can be managed by my aunt," said Miss Tita. And then she observe_hat her holiday was over; she must go home.
I laid my hand on her arm, across the table, to stay her a moment. "What _ant 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, befor_he 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 _using, almost envious way, "Oh, but she loves them— she loves them!"
This reflection, repeated with such emphasis, gave me great comfort; but t_btain more of that balm I said, "If she shouldn't intend to destroy th_bjects we speak of before her death she will probably have made som_isposition 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 liv_n?"
"On some money that comes from America, from a lawyer. He sends it ever_uarter. 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," sh_aid; and the look and tone which accompanied these words betrayed so th_bsence of the habit of thinking of herself that I almost thought he_harming. The next instant she added, "But she had a lawyer once, ever so lon_go. And some people came and signed something."
"They were probably witnesses. And you were not asked to sign? Well then," _rgued rapidly and hopefully, "it is because you are the legatee; she has lef_ll her documents to you!"
"If she has it's with very strict conditions," Miss Tita responded, risin_uickly, while the movement gave the words a little character of decision.
They seemed to imply that the bequest would be accompanied with a command tha_he articles bequeathed should remain concealed from every inquisitive eye an_hat I was very much mistaken if I thought she was the person to depart fro_n injunction so solemn.
"Oh, of course you will have to abide by the terms," I said; and she uttere_othing to mitigate the severity of this conclusion. Nonetheless, later, jus_efore we disembarked at her own door, on our return, which had taken plac_lmost in silence, she said to me abruptly, "I will do what I can to hel_ou." I was grateful for this—it was very well so far as it went; but it di_ot keep me from remembering that night in a worried waking hour that I no_ad her word for it to reinforce my own impression that the old woman was ver_unning.