The Aspern Papers, by Henry James


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 were served. I remember well that I felt no surprise at seeing her; which is not a proof that I did not believe in her timidity. It was immense, but in a case in which there was a particular reason for boldness it never would have prevented her from running up to my rooms. I saw that she was now quite full of a particular reason; it threw her forward — made her seize me, as I rose to meet her, 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, but she doesn’t come back; I don’t know what has happened to her. I told her that if he was not at home she was to follow him where he had gone; but apparently she is following him all over Venice. I don’t know what to do — she looks so as if she were sinking.”

“May I see her, may I judge?” I asked. “Of course I shall be delighted to bring someone; but hadn’t we better send my man instead, so that I may stay with you?”

Miss Tita assented to this and I dispatched my servant for the best doctor in the neighborhood. I hurried downstairs with her, and on the way she told me that an hour after I quitted them in the afternoon Miss Bordereau had had an attack of “oppression,” a terrible difficulty in breathing. This had subsided but had left her so exhausted that she did not come up: she seemed all gone. I repeated that she was not gone, that she would not go yet; whereupon Miss Tita gave 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 the old woman capable of any weird maneuver. Miss Tita wanted to know what I had done to her; her aunt had told her that I had made her so angry. I declared I had done nothing — I had been exceedingly careful; to which my companion rejoined that Miss Bordereau had assured her she had had a scene with me — a scene that had upset her. I answered with some resentment that it was a scene of her own making — that I couldn’t think what she was angry with me for unless for not seeing my way to give a thousand pounds for the portrait of Jeffrey Aspern. “And did she show you that? Oh, gracious — oh, deary me!” groaned Miss Tita, who appeared to feel that the situation was passing out of her control and that the elements of her fate were thickening around her. I said that I would give anything to possess it, yet that I had not a thousand pounds; but I stopped when we came to the door of Miss Bordereau’s room. I had an immense curiosity to pass it, but I thought it my duty to represent to Miss Tita that if 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 almost with indignation. I did think so but forebore to say it, and I softly followed my conductress.

I remember that what I said to her as I stood for a moment beside the old woman’s bed was, “Does she never show you her eyes then? Have you never seen them?” Miss Bordereau had been divested of her green shade, but (it was not my fortune to behold Juliana in her nightcap) the upper half of her face was covered by the fall of a piece of dingy lacelike muslin, a sort of extemporized hood which, wound round her head, descended to the end of her nose, leaving nothing visible but her white withered cheeks and puckered mouth, closed tightly and, as it were consciously. Miss Tita gave me a glance of surprise, evidently not seeing a reason for my impatience. “You mean that she 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 they used to be magnificent!”

“Yes indeed, we have Aspern’s word for that.” And as I looked again at the old woman’s wrappings I could imagine that she had not wished to allow people a reason to say that the great poet had overdone it. But I did not waste my time in considering Miss Bordereau, in whom the appearance of respiration was so slight as to suggest that no human attention could ever help her more. I turned my eyes all over the room, rummaging with them the closets, the chests of drawers, the tables. Miss Tita met them quickly and read, I think, what was in them; but she did not answer it, turning away restlessly, anxiously, so that I felt rebuked, with reason, for a preoccupation that was almost profane in 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 who should wish to put his hand on Miss Bordereau’s papers directly after her death. The room was a dire confusion; it looked like the room of an old actress. There were clothes hanging over chairs, odd-looking shabby bundles here and there, and various pasteboard boxes piled together, battered, bulging, and discolored, which might have been fifty years old. Miss Tita after a moment noticed the direction of my eyes again and, as if she guessed how I judged the air of the place (forgetting I had no business to judge it at all), said, perhaps to defend herself from the imputation of complicity in such untidiness:

“She likes it this way; we can’t move things. There are old bandboxes she has had 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 stood under a sofa where there was just room for it. It appeared to be a queer, superannuated coffer, of painted wood, with elaborate handles and shriveled straps 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 — in the days of her adventures, which it had shared. It would have made a strange figure 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 doctor whom the little maid had been sent to fetch and whom she had at last overtaken. My servant, going on his own errand, had met her with her companion in 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 him peeping over the doctor’s shoulder. I motioned him away the more instantly that the sight of his prying face reminded me that I myself had almost as little to do there — an admonition confirmed by the sharp way the little doctor looked 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 profession and seemed to look at everything but his patient. He looked particularly at me, as if it struck him that I should be better for a dose, so that I bowed to him and left him with the women, going down to smoke a cigar in the garden. I was nervous; I could not go further; I could not leave the place. I don’t know exactly what I thought might happen, but it seemed to me important to be there. I wandered about in the alleys — the warm night had come on — smoking cigar after cigar and looking at the light in Miss Bordereau’s windows. They were open now, I could see; the situation was different. Sometimes the light moved, but not quickly; it did not suggest the hurry of a crisis. Was the old woman dying, or was she already dead? Had the doctor said that there was nothing to be done at her tremendous age but to let her quietly pass away; or had he simply announced with a look a little more conventional that the end of the end had come? Were the other two women moving about to perform the offices that follow in such a case? It made me uneasy not to be nearer, as if I thought the doctor himself might carry away the papers with him. I bit my cigar hard as it came over me again that perhaps there were now no papers to carry!

I wandered about for an hour — for an hour and a half. I looked out for Miss Tita at one of the windows, having a vague idea that she might come there to give me some sign. Would she not see the red tip of my cigar moving about in the dark and feel that I wanted eminently to know what the doctor had said? I am afraid it is a proof my anxieties had made me gross that I should have taken in some degree for granted that at such an hour, in the midst of the greatest change that could take place in her life, they were uppermost also in Miss Tita’s mind. My servant came down and spoke to me; he knew nothing save that the doctor had gone after a visit of half an hour. If he had stayed half an hour then Miss Bordereau was still alive: it could not have taken so much time as that to enunciate the contrary. I sent the man out of the house; there were moments when the sense of his curiosity annoyed me, and this was one of them. HE had been watching my cigar tip from an upper window, if Miss Tita had not; he could not know what I was after and I could not tell him, though I was conscious he had fantastic private theories about me which he thought fine and which I, had I known them, should have thought offensive.

I went upstairs at last but I ascended no higher than the sala. The door of Miss Bordereau’s apartment was open, showing from the parlor the dimness of a poor candle. I went toward it with a light tread, and at the same moment Miss Tita appeared and stood looking at me as I approached. “She’s better — she’s better,” she said, even before I had asked. “The doctor has given her something; she woke up, came back to life while he was there. He says there is no 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 this afternoon.”

“Yes; she mustn’t come out any more,” said Miss Tita, with one of her lapses into a deeper placidity.

“What is the use of making such a remark as that if you begin to rattle her about 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 to you, if you are frightened.”

“Well, I am not frightened now,” said Miss Tita cheerfully. “She is very quiet.”

“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 grabbed that picture this afternoon. But if she holds you fast how comes it that you are here?”

Miss Tita hesitated a moment; though her face was in deep shadow (she had her back to the light in the parlor and I had put down my own candle far off, near the door of the sala), I thought I saw her smile ingenuously. “I came on purpose — 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 the parlor; 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 I was too conscious that this would not do, as there was something I desired immensely 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. Miss Tita assented unconditionally; the doctor was coming again, she said, and she would be there to meet him at the door. We strolled through the fine superfluous hall, where on the marble floor — particularly as at first we said nothing — our footsteps were more audible than I had expected. When we reached the other end — the wide window, inveterately closed, connecting with the balcony that overhung the canal — I suggested that we should remain there, as she would see the doctor arrive still better. I opened the window and we passed out on the balcony. The air of the canal seemed even heavier, hotter than that of the sala. The place was hushed and void; the quiet neighborhood had 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 his jacket 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 Miss Bordereau had called it the first time I saw her. Presently a gondola passed along the canal with its slow rhythmical plash, and as we listened we watched it in silence. It did not stop, it did not carry the doctor; and after it had gone 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 had been 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 if you had found them?” I asked, almost trembling.

She delayed to reply and I waited. Suddenly she broke out, “I don’t know what I 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 same tone: “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 and shamed.

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 did insist too much: “I can’t deceive her that way. I can’t deceive her — perhaps on 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 I had given her an invented name, on account of my fear that her aunt would have heard of me and would refuse to take me in. I explained this and also that I had really been a party to the letter written to them by John Cumnor months before.

She listened with great attention, looking at me with parted lips, and when I had made my confession she said, “Then your real name — what is it?” She repeated it over twice when I had told her, accompanying it with the exclamation “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 of course.

She hesitated; I thought she was perhaps going to say that we had been very base. But she remarked after a moment, in a candid, wondering way, “How much you 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 have changed their place herself? How can she walk? How can she arrive at that sort of 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 she had thought over my question already herself and had simply had no choice but that answer — the idea that in the dead of night, or at some moment when the coast 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 for her?” I asked; to which Miss Tita replied promptly and positively that their servant had had nothing to do with the matter, though without admitting definitely that she had spoken to her. It was as if she were a little shy, a little ashamed now of letting me see how much she had entered into my uneasiness and had me on her mind. Suddenly she said to me, without any immediate 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 she can rummage about that way she can perfectly have burnt them.”

“You must wait — you must wait,” Miss Tita moralized mournfully; and her tone ministered little to my patience, for it seemed after all to accept that wretched 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 had her 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 she wished 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 had been implied in my submission to delay — the idea that she would do more than merely find out. I know not whether she guessed this; at all events she appeared 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 been diverted by our seeing the doctor’s gondola shoot into the little canal and approach the house. I noted that he came as fast as if he believed that Miss Bordereau was still in danger. We looked down at him while he disembarked and then went back into the sala to meet him. When he came up however I naturally left Miss Tita to go off with him alone, only asking her leave to come back later for news.

I went out of the house and took a long walk, as far as the Piazza, where my restlessness declined to quit me. I was unable to sit down (it was very late now but there were people still at the little tables in front of the cafes); I could only walk round and round, and I did so half a dozen times. I was uncomfortable, but it gave me a certain pleasure to have told Miss Tita who I really was. At last I took my way home again, slowly getting all but inextricably lost, as I did whenever I went out in Venice: so that it was considerably past midnight when I reached my door. The sala, upstairs, was as dark as usual and my lamp as I crossed it found nothing satisfactory to show me. I was disappointed, for I had notified Miss Tita that I would come back for a report, and I thought she might have left a light there as a sign. The door of the ladies’ apartment was closed; which seemed an intimation that my faltering friend had gone to bed, tired of waiting for me. I stood in the middle of the place, considering, hoping she would hear me and perhaps peep out, saying to myself too that she would never go to bed with her aunt in a state so critical; she would sit up and watch — she would be in a chair, in her dressing gown. I went nearer the door; I stopped there and listened. I heard nothing at all and at last I tapped gently. No answer came and after another minute I turned the handle. There was no light in the room; this ought to have prevented me from going in, but it had no such effect. If I have candidly narrated the importunities, the indelicacies, of which my desire to possess myself of Jeffrey Aspern’s papers had rendered me capable I need not shrink from confessing this last indiscretion. I think it was the worst thing I did; yet there were extenuating circumstances. I was deeply though doubtless not disinterestedly anxious for more news of the old lady, and Miss Tita had accepted from me, as it were, a rendezvous which it might have been a point of honor with me to keep. It may be said that her leaving the place dark was a positive sign that she released me, and to this I can only reply that I desired not to be released.

The door of Miss Bordereau’s room was open and I could see beyond it the faintness of a taper. There was no sound — my footstep caused no one to stir. I came further into the room; I lingered there with my lamp in my hand. I wanted to give Miss Tita a chance to come to me if she were with her aunt, as she must be. I made no noise to call her; I only waited to see if she would not notice my light. She did not, and I explained this (I found afterward I was right) by the idea that she had fallen asleep. If she had fallen asleep her aunt was not on her mind, and my explanation ought to have led me to go out as I had come. I must repeat again that it did not, for I found myself at the same moment thinking of something else. I had no definite purpose, no bad intention, 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 not in my mind that I might commit a theft. Even if it had been I was confronted with the evident fact that Miss Bordereau did not leave her secretary, her cupboard, and the drawers of her tables gaping. I had no keys, no tools, and no 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 to the tormenting treasure than I had ever been. I held up my lamp, let the light play on the different objects as if it could tell me something. Still there came no movement from the other room. If Miss Tita was sleeping she was sleeping sound. Was she doing so — generous creature — on purpose to leave me the field? Did she know I was there and was she just keeping quiet to see what I would do — what I COULD do? But what could I do, when it came to that? She herself knew even better than I how little.

I stopped in front of the secretary, looking at it very idiotically; for what had it to say to me after all? In the first place it was locked, and in the second it almost surely contained nothing in which I was interested. Ten to one the papers had been destroyed; and even if they had not been destroyed the old woman would not have put them in such a place as that after removing them from the green trunk — would not have transferred them, if she had the idea of their safety on her brain, from the better hiding place to the worse. The secretary was more conspicuous, more accessible in a room in which she could no longer mount guard. It opened with a key, but there was a little brass handle, like a button, as well; I saw this as I played my lamp over it. I did something more than this at that moment: I caught a glimpse of the possibility that Miss Tita wished me really to understand. If she did not wish me to understand, if she wished me to keep away, why had she not locked the door of communication between the sitting room and the sala? That would have been a definite sign that I was to leave them alone. If I did not leave them alone she 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 not left the key, but the lid would probably move if I touched the button. This theory fascinated me, and I bent over very close to judge. I did not propose to do anything, not even — not in the least — to let down the lid; I only wanted to test my theory, to see if the cover WOULD move. I touched the button with my hand — a mere touch would tell me; and as I did so (it is embarrassing for me to relate it), I looked over my shoulder. It was a chance, an instinct, for I had not heard anything. I almost let my luminary drop and certainly I stepped back, straightening myself up at what I saw. Miss Bordereau stood there in her nightdress, 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 the first, the last, the only time I beheld her extraordinary eyes. They glared at me, they made me horribly ashamed. I never shall forget her strange little bent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her expression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned, looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously:

“Ah, you publishing scoundrel!”

I know not what I stammered, to excuse myself, to explain; but I went toward her, 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 back with a quick spasm, as if death had descended on her, into Miss Tita’s arms.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38