Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 8

  • As it turned out the precaution had not been needed, for three hours later, just as I had finished my dinner, Miss Bordereau's niece appeared, unannounced, in the open doorway of the room in which my simple repasts wer_erved. I remember well that I felt no surprise at seeing her; which is not _roof that I did not believe in her timidity. It was immense, but in a case i_hich there was a particular reason for boldness it never would have prevente_er from running up to my rooms. I saw that she was now quite full of _articular reason; it threw her forward—made her seize me, as I rose to mee_er, by the arm.
  • "My aunt is very ill; I think she is dying!"
  • "Never in the world," I answered bitterly. "Don't you be afraid!"
  • "Do go for a doctor—do, do! Olimpia is gone for the one we always have, bu_he doesn't come back; I don't know what has happened to her. I told her tha_f he was not at home she was to follow him where he had gone; but apparentl_he is following him all over Venice. I don't know what to do—she looks so a_f she were sinking."
  • "May I see her, may I judge?" I asked. "Of course I shall be delighted t_ring someone; but hadn't we better send my man instead, so that I may sta_ith you?"
  • Miss Tita assented to this and I dispatched my servant for the best doctor i_he neighborhood. I hurried downstairs with her, and on the way she told m_hat an hour after I quitted them in the afternoon Miss Bordereau had had a_ttack of "oppression," a terrible difficulty in breathing. This had subside_ut had left her so exhausted that she did not come up: she seemed all gone. _epeated that she was not gone, that she would not go yet; whereupon Miss Tit_ave me a sharper sidelong glance than she had ever directed at me and said,
  • "Really, what do you mean? I suppose you don't accuse her of making believe!"
  • I forget what reply I made to this, but I grant that in my heart I thought th_ld woman capable of any weird maneuver. Miss Tita wanted to know what I ha_one to her; her aunt had told her that I had made her so angry. I declared _ad done nothing— I had been exceedingly careful; to which my companio_ejoined that Miss Bordereau had assured her she had had a scene with me— _cene that had upset her. I answered with some resentment that it was a scen_f her own making—that I couldn't think what she was angry with me for unles_or not seeing my way to give a thousand pounds for the portrait of Jeffre_spern. "And did she show you that? Oh, gracious—oh, deary me!" groaned Mis_ita, who appeared to feel that the situation was passing out of her contro_nd that the elements of her fate were thickening around her. I said that _ould give anything to possess it, yet that I had not a thousand pounds; but _topped when we came to the door of Miss Bordereau's room. I had an immens_uriosity to pass it, but I thought it my duty to represent to Miss Tita tha_f I made the invalid angry she ought perhaps to be spared the sight of me.
  • "The sight of you? Do you think she can SEE?" my companion demanded almos_ith indignation. I did think so but forebore to say it, and I softly followe_y conductress.
  • I remember that what I said to her as I stood for a moment beside the ol_oman's bed was, "Does she never show you her eyes then? Have you never see_hem?" Miss Bordereau had been divested of her green shade, but (it was not m_ortune to behold Juliana in her nightcap) the upper half of her face wa_overed by the fall of a piece of dingy lacelike muslin, a sort o_xtemporized hood which, wound round her head, descended to the end of he_ose, leaving nothing visible but her white withered cheeks and puckere_outh, closed tightly and, as it were consciously. Miss Tita gave me a glanc_f surprise, evidently not seeing a reason for my impatience. "You mean tha_he always wears something? She does it to preserve them."
  • "Because they are so fine?"
  • "Oh, today, today!" And Miss Tita shook her head, speaking very low. "But the_sed to be magnificent!"
  • "Yes indeed, we have Aspern's word for that." And as I looked again at the ol_oman's wrappings I could imagine that she had not wished to allow people _eason to say that the great poet had overdone it. But I did not waste my tim_n considering Miss Bordereau, in whom the appearance of respiration was s_light as to suggest that no human attention could ever help her more. _urned my eyes all over the room, rummaging with them the closets, the chest_f drawers, the tables. Miss Tita met them quickly and read, I think, what wa_n them; but she did not answer it, turning away restlessly, anxiously, s_hat I felt rebuked, with reason, for a preoccupation that was almost profan_n the presence of our dying companion. All the same I took another look, endeavoring to pick out mentally the place to try first, for a person wh_hould wish to put his hand on Miss Bordereau's papers directly after he_eath. The room was a dire confusion; it looked like the room of an ol_ctress. There were clothes hanging over chairs, odd-looking shabby bundle_ere and there, and various pasteboard boxes piled together, battered, bulging, and discolored, which might have been fifty years old. Miss Tit_fter a moment noticed the direction of my eyes again and, as if she guesse_ow I judged the air of the place (forgetting I had no business to judge it a_ll), said, perhaps to defend herself from the imputation of complicity i_uch untidiness:
  • "She likes it this way; we can't move things. There are old bandboxes she ha_ad most of her life." Then she added, half taking pity on my real thought,
  • "Those things were THERE." And she pointed to a small, low trunk which stoo_nder a sofa where there was just room for it. It appeared to be a queer, superannuated coffer, of painted wood, with elaborate handles and shrivele_traps and with the color (it had last been endued with a coat of light green) much rubbed off. It evidently had traveled with Juliana in the olden time— i_he days of her adventures, which it had shared. It would have made a strang_igure arriving at a modern hotel.
  • "WERE there—they aren't now?" I asked, startled by Miss Tita's implication.
  • She was going to answer, but at that moment the doctor came in— the docto_hom the little maid had been sent to fetch and whom she had at las_vertaken. My servant, going on his own errand, had met her with her companio_n tow, and in the sociable Venetian spirit, retracing his steps with them, had also come up to the threshold of Miss Bordereau's room, where I saw hi_eeping over the doctor's shoulder. I motioned him away the more instantl_hat the sight of his prying face reminded me that I myself had almost a_ittle to do there— an admonition confirmed by the sharp way the little docto_ooked at me, appearing to take me for a rival who had the field before him.
  • He was a short, fat, brisk gentleman who wore the tall hat of his professio_nd seemed to look at everything but his patient. He looked particularly a_e, as if it struck him that I should be better for a dose, so that I bowed t_im and left him with the women, going down to smoke a cigar in the garden. _as nervous; I could not go further; I could not leave the place. I don't kno_xactly what I thought might happen, but it seemed to me important to b_here. I wandered about in the alleys— the warm night had come on—smokin_igar after cigar and looking at the light in Miss Bordereau's windows. The_ere open now, I could see; the situation was different. Sometimes the ligh_oved, but not quickly; it did not suggest the hurry of a crisis. Was the ol_oman dying, or was she already dead? Had the doctor said that there wa_othing to be done at her tremendous age but to let her quietly pass away; o_ad he simply announced with a look a little more conventional that the end o_he end had come? Were the other two women moving about to perform the office_hat follow in such a case? It made me uneasy not to be nearer, as if _hought the doctor himself might carry away the papers with him. I bit m_igar hard as it came over me again that perhaps there were now no papers t_arry!
  • I wandered about for an hour—for an hour and a half. I looked out for Mis_ita at one of the windows, having a vague idea that she might come there t_ive me some sign. Would she not see the red tip of my cigar moving about i_he dark and feel that I wanted eminently to know what the doctor had said? _m afraid it is a proof my anxieties had made me gross that I should hav_aken in some degree for granted that at such an hour, in the midst of th_reatest change that could take place in her life, they were uppermost also i_iss Tita's mind. My servant came down and spoke to me; he knew nothing sav_hat the doctor had gone after a visit of half an hour. If he had stayed hal_n hour then Miss Bordereau was still alive: it could not have taken so muc_ime as that to enunciate the contrary. I sent the man out of the house; ther_ere moments when the sense of his curiosity annoyed me, and this was one o_hem. HE had been watching my cigar tip from an upper window, if Miss Tita ha_ot; he could not know what I was after and I could not tell him, though I wa_onscious he had fantastic private theories about me which he thought fine an_hich I, had I known them, should have thought offensive.
  • I went upstairs at last but I ascended no higher than the sala. The door o_iss Bordereau's apartment was open, showing from the parlor the dimness of _oor candle. I went toward it with a light tread, and at the same moment Mis_ita appeared and stood looking at me as I approached. "She's better—she'_etter," she said, even before I had asked. "The doctor has given he_omething; she woke up, came back to life while he was there. He says there i_o immediate danger."
  • "No immediate danger? Surely he thinks her condition strange!"
  • "Yes, because she had been excited. That affects her dreadfully."
  • "It will do so again then, because she excites herself. She did so thi_fternoon."
  • "Yes; she mustn't come out any more," said Miss Tita, with one of her lapse_nto a deeper placidity.
  • "What is the use of making such a remark as that if you begin to rattle he_bout again the first time she bids you?"
  • "I won't—I won't do it any more."
  • "You must learn to resist her," I went on.
  • "Oh, yes, I shall; I shall do so better if you tell me it's right."
  • "You mustn't do it for me; you must do it for yourself. It all comes back t_ou, if you are frightened."
  • "Well, I am not frightened now," said Miss Tita cheerfully. "She is ver_uiet."
  • "Is she conscious again—does she speak?"
  • "No, she doesn't speak, but she takes my hand. She holds it fast."
  • "Yes," I rejoined, "I can see what force she still has by the way she grabbe_hat picture this afternoon. But if she holds you fast how comes it that yo_re here?"
  • Miss Tita hesitated a moment; though her face was in deep shadow (she had he_ack to the light in the parlor and I had put down my own candle far off, nea_he door of the sala), I thought I saw her smile ingenuously. "I came o_urpose—I heard your step."
  • "Why, I came on tiptoe, as inaudibly as possible."
  • "Well, I heard you," said Miss Tita.
  • "And is your aunt alone now?"
  • "Oh, no; Olimpia is sitting there."
  • On my side I hesitated. "Shall we then step in there?" And I nodded at th_arlor; I wanted more and more to be on the spot.
  • "We can't talk there—she will hear us."
  • I was on the point of replying that in that case we would sit silent, but _as too conscious that this would not do, as there was something I desire_mmensely to ask her. So I proposed that we should walk a little in the sala, keeping more at the other end, where we should not disturb the old lady. Mis_ita assented unconditionally; the doctor was coming again, she said, and sh_ould be there to meet him at the door. We strolled through the fin_uperfluous hall, where on the marble floor—particularly as at first we sai_othing— our footsteps were more audible than I had expected. When we reache_he other end—the wide window, inveterately closed, connecting with th_alcony that overhung the canal— I suggested that we should remain there, a_he would see the doctor arrive still better. I opened the window and w_assed out on the balcony. The air of the canal seemed even heavier, hotte_han that of the sala. The place was hushed and void; the quiet neighborhoo_ad gone to sleep. A lamp, here and there, over the narrow black water, glimmered in double; the voice of a man going homeward singing, with hi_acket on his shoulder and his hat on his ear, came to us from a distance.
  • This did not prevent the scene from being very comme il faut, as Mis_ordereau had called it the first time I saw her. Presently a gondola passe_long the canal with its slow rhythmical plash, and as we listened we watche_t in silence. It did not stop, it did not carry the doctor; and after it ha_one on I said to Miss Tita:
  • "And where are they now—the things that were in the trunk?"
  • "In the trunk?"
  • "That green box you pointed out to me in her room. You said her papers ha_een there; you seemed to imply that she had transferred them."
  • "Oh, yes; they are not in the trunk," said Miss Tita.
  • "May I ask if you have looked?"
  • "Yes, I have looked—for you."
  • "How for me, dear Miss Tita? Do you mean you would have given them to me i_ou had found them?" I asked, almost trembling.
  • She delayed to reply and I waited. Suddenly she broke out, "I don't know wha_ would do—what I wouldn't!"
  • "Would you look again—somewhere else?"
  • She had spoken with a strange unexpected emotion, and she went on in the sam_one: "I can't—I can't—while she lies there. It isn't decent."
  • "No, it isn't decent," I replied gravely. "Let the poor lady rest in peace."
  • And the words, on my lips, were not hypocritical, for I felt reprimanded an_hamed.
  • Miss Tita added in a moment, as if she had guessed this and were sorry for me, but at the same time wished to explain that I did drive her on or at least di_nsist too much: "I can't deceive her that way. I can't deceive her— perhap_n her deathbed."
  • "Heaven forbid I should ask you, though I have been guilty myself!"
  • "You have been guilty?"
  • "I have sailed under false colors." I felt now as if I must tell her that _ad given her an invented name, on account of my fear that her aunt would hav_eard of me and would refuse to take me in. I explained this and also that _ad really been a party to the letter written to them by John Cumnor month_efore.
  • She listened with great attention, looking at me with parted lips, and when _ad made my confession she said, "Then your real name— what is it?" Sh_epeated it over twice when I had told her, accompanying it with th_xclamation "Gracious, gracious!" Then she added, "I like your own best."
  • "So do I," I said, laughing. "Ouf! it's a relief to get rid of the other."
  • "So it was a regular plot—a kind of conspiracy?"
  • "Oh, a conspiracy—we were only two," I replied, leaving out Mrs. Prest o_ourse.
  • She hesitated; I thought she was perhaps going to say that we had been ver_ase. But she remarked after a moment, in a candid, wondering way, "How muc_ou must want them!"
  • "Oh, I do, passionately!" I conceded, smiling. And this chance made me go on, forgetting my compunction of a moment before. "How can she possibly hav_hanged their place herself? How can she walk? How can she arrive at that sor_f muscular exertion? How can she lift and carry things?"
  • "Oh, when one wants and when one has so much will!" said Miss Tita, as if sh_ad thought over my question already herself and had simply had no choice bu_hat answer—the idea that in the dead of night, or at some moment when th_oast was clear, the old woman had been capable of a miraculous effort.
  • "Have you questioned Olimpia? Hasn't she helped her—hasn't she done it fo_er?" I asked; to which Miss Tita replied promptly and positively that thei_ervant had had nothing to do with the matter, though without admittin_efinitely that she had spoken to her. It was as if she were a little shy, _ittle ashamed now of letting me see how much she had entered into m_neasiness and had me on her mind. Suddenly she said to me, without an_mmediate relevance:
  • "I feel as if you were a new person, now that you have got a new name."
  • "It isn't a new one; it is a very good old one, thank heaven!"
  • She looked at me a moment. "I do like it better."
  • "Oh, if you didn't I would almost go on with the other!"
  • "Would you really?"
  • I laughed again, but for all answer to this inquiry I said, "Of course if sh_an rummage about that way she can perfectly have burnt them."
  • "You must wait—you must wait," Miss Tita moralized mournfully; and her ton_inistered little to my patience, for it seemed after all to accept tha_retched possibility. I would teach myself to wait, I declared nevertheless; because in the first place I could not do otherwise and in the second I ha_er promise, given me the other night, that she would help me.
  • "Of course if the papers are gone that's no use," she said; not as if sh_ished to recede, but only to be conscientious.
  • "Naturally. But if you could only find out!" I groaned, quivering again.
  • "I thought you said you would wait."
  • "Oh, you mean wait even for that?"
  • "For what then?"
  • "Oh, nothing," I replied, rather foolishly, being ashamed to tell her what ha_een implied in my submission to delay— the idea that she would do more tha_erely find out. I know not whether she guessed this; at all events sh_ppeared to become aware of the necessity for being a little more rigid.
  • "I didn't promise to deceive, did I? I don't think I did."
  • "It doesn't much matter whether you did or not, for you couldn't!"
  • I don't think Miss Tita would have contested this event had she not bee_iverted by our seeing the doctor's gondola shoot into the little canal an_pproach the house. I noted that he came as fast as if he believed that Mis_ordereau was still in danger. We looked down at him while he disembarked an_hen went back into the sala to meet him. When he came up however I naturall_eft Miss Tita to go off with him alone, only asking her leave to come bac_ater for news.
  • I went out of the house and took a long walk, as far as the Piazza, where m_estlessness declined to quit me. I was unable to sit down (it was very lat_ow but there were people still at the little tables in front of the cafes); _ould only walk round and round, and I did so half a dozen times. I wa_ncomfortable, but it gave me a certain pleasure to have told Miss Tita who _eally was. At last I took my way home again, slowly getting all bu_nextricably lost, as I did whenever I went out in Venice: so that it wa_onsiderably past midnight when I reached my door. The sala, upstairs, was a_ark as usual and my lamp as I crossed it found nothing satisfactory to sho_e. I was disappointed, for I had notified Miss Tita that I would come bac_or a report, and I thought she might have left a light there as a sign. Th_oor of the ladies' apartment was closed; which seemed an intimation that m_altering friend had gone to bed, tired of waiting for me. I stood in th_iddle of the place, considering, hoping she would hear me and perhaps pee_ut, saying to myself too that she would never go to bed with her aunt in _tate so critical; she would sit up and watch—she would be in a chair, in he_ressing gown. I went nearer the door; I stopped there and listened. I hear_othing at all and at last I tapped gently. No answer came and after anothe_inute I turned the handle. There was no light in the room; this ought to hav_revented me from going in, but it had no such effect. If I have candidl_arrated the importunities, the indelicacies, of which my desire to posses_yself of Jeffrey Aspern's papers had rendered me capable I need not shrin_rom confessing this last indiscretion. I think it was the worst thing I did; yet there were extenuating circumstances. I was deeply though doubtless no_isinterestedly anxious for more news of the old lady, and Miss Tita ha_ccepted from me, as it were, a rendezvous which it might have been a point o_onor with me to keep. It may be said that her leaving the place dark was _ositive sign that she released me, and to this I can only reply that _esired not to be released.
  • The door of Miss Bordereau's room was open and I could see beyond it th_aintness of a taper. There was no sound—my footstep caused no one to stir. _ame further into the room; I lingered there with my lamp in my hand. I wante_o give Miss Tita a chance to come to me if she were with her aunt, as sh_ust be. I made no noise to call her; I only waited to see if she would no_otice my light. She did not, and I explained this (I found afterward I wa_ight) by the idea that she had fallen asleep. If she had fallen asleep he_unt was not on her mind, and my explanation ought to have led me to go out a_ had come. I must repeat again that it did not, for I found myself at th_ame moment thinking of something else. I had no definite purpose, no ba_ntention, but I felt myself held to the spot by an acute, though absurd, sense of opportunity. For what I could not have said, inasmuch as it was no_n my mind that I might commit a theft. Even if it had been I was confronte_ith the evident fact that Miss Bordereau did not leave her secretary, he_upboard, and the drawers of her tables gaping. I had no keys, no tools, an_o ambition to smash her furniture. Nonetheless it came to me that I was now, perhaps alone, unmolested, at the hour of temptation and secrecy, nearer t_he tormenting treasure than I had ever been. I held up my lamp, let the ligh_lay on the different objects as if it could tell me something. Still ther_ame no movement from the other room. If Miss Tita was sleeping she wa_leeping sound. Was she doing so— generous creature—on purpose to leave me th_ield? Did she know I was there and was she just keeping quiet to see what _ould do— what I COULD do? But what could I do, when it came to that? Sh_erself knew even better than I how little.
  • I stopped in front of the secretary, looking at it very idiotically; for wha_ad it to say to me after all? In the first place it was locked, and in th_econd it almost surely contained nothing in which I was interested. Ten t_ne the papers had been destroyed; and even if they had not been destroyed th_ld woman would not have put them in such a place as that after removing the_rom the green trunk— would not have transferred them, if she had the idea o_heir safety on her brain, from the better hiding place to the worse. Th_ecretary was more conspicuous, more accessible in a room in which she coul_o longer mount guard. It opened with a key, but there was a little bras_andle, like a button, as well; I saw this as I played my lamp over it. I di_omething more than this at that moment: I caught a glimpse of the possibilit_hat Miss Tita wished me really to understand. If she did not wish me t_nderstand, if she wished me to keep away, why had she not locked the door o_ommunication between the sitting room and the sala? That would have been _efinite sign that I was to leave them alone. If I did not leave them alon_he meant me to come for a purpose— a purpose now indicated by the quick, fantastic idea that to oblige me she had unlocked the secretary. She had no_eft the key, but the lid would probably move if I touched the button. Thi_heory fascinated me, and I bent over very close to judge. I did not propos_o do anything, not even—not in the least— to let down the lid; I only wante_o test my theory, to see if the cover WOULD move. I touched the button wit_y hand—a mere touch would tell me; and as I did so (it is embarrassing for m_o relate it), I looked over my shoulder. It was a chance, an instinct, for _ad not heard anything. I almost let my luminary drop and certainly I steppe_ack, straightening myself up at what I saw. Miss Bordereau stood there in he_ightdress, in the doorway of her room, watching me; her hands were raised, she had lifted the everlasting curtain that covered half her face, and for th_irst, the last, the only time I beheld her extraordinary eyes. They glared a_e, they made me horribly ashamed. I never shall forget her strange littl_ent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, he_xpression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned, looking a_er, she hissed out passionately, furiously:
  • "Ah, you publishing scoundrel!"
  • I know not what I stammered, to excuse myself, to explain; but I went towar_er, to tell her I meant no harm. She waved me off with her old hands, retreating before me in horror; and the next thing I knew she had fallen bac_ith a quick spasm, as if death had descended on her, into Miss Tita's arms.