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.