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The Aspern Papers, by Henry James

Part 3 out of 3

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the place"? He reminded me that I had not lunched and expressed
therefore respectfully the hope that I would dine earlier.
He had had long periods of leisure during the day, when I had left
the boat and rambled, so that I was not obliged to consider him,
and I told him that that day, for a change, I would touch
no meat. It was an effect of poor Miss Tita's proposal,
not altogether auspicious, that I had quite lost my appetite.
I don't know why it happened that on this occasion I was more than
ever struck with that queer air of sociability, of cousinship
and family life, which makes up half the expression of Venice.
Without streets and vehicles, the uproar of wheels, the brutality
of horses, and with its little winding ways where people
crowd together, where voices sound as in the corridors of a house,
where the human step circulates as if it skirted the angles
of furniture and shoes never wear out, the place has the character
of an immense collective apartment, in which Piazza San Marco
is the most ornamented corner and palaces and churches,
for the rest, play the part of great divans of repose,
tables of entertainment, expanses of decoration. And somehow
the splendid common domicile, familiar, domestic, and resonant,
also resembles a theater, with actors clicking over bridges and,
in straggling processions, tripping along fondamentas. As
you sit in your gondola the footways that in certain parts edge
the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage, meeting it
at the same angle, and the Venetian figures, moving to and fro
against the battered scenery of their little houses of comedy,
strike you as members of an endless dramatic troupe.

I went to bed that night very tired, without being able to compose
a letter to Miss Tita. Was this failure the reason why I became
conscious the next morning as soon as I awoke of a determination
to see the poor lady again the first moment she would receive me?
That had something to do with it, but what had still more was the fact
that during my sleep a very odd revulsion had taken place in my spirit.
I found myself aware of this almost as soon as I opened my eyes;
it made me jump out of my bed with the movement of a man who remembers
that he has left the house door ajar or a candle burning under a shelf.
Was I still in time to save my goods? That question was in my heart;
for what had now come to pass was that in the unconscious cerebration
of sleep I had swung back to a passionate appreciation of Miss
Bordereau's papers. They were now more precious than ever,
and a kind of ferocity had come into my desire to possess them.
The condition Miss Tita had attached to the possession of them
no longer appeared an obstacle worth thinking of, and for an hour,
that morning, my repentant imagination brushed it aside.
It was absurd that I should be able to invent nothing;
absurd to renounce so easily and turn away helpless from the idea
that the only way to get hold of the papers was to unite myself
to her for life. I would not unite myself and yet I would have them.
I must add that by the time I sent down to ask if she would see me I
had invented no alternative, though to do so I had had all the time
that I was dressing. This failure was humiliating, yet what could
the alternative be? Miss Tita sent back word that I might come;
and as I descended the stairs and crossed the sala to her door--
this time she received me in her aunt's forlorn parlor--I hoped she
would not think my errand was to tell her I accepted her hand.
She certainly would have made the day before the reflection that
I declined it.

As soon as I came into the room I saw that she had drawn this inference,
but I also saw something which had not been in my forecast. Poor Miss
Tita's sense of her failure had produced an extraordinary alteration in her,
but I had been too full of my literary concupiscence to think of that.
Now I perceived it; I can scarcely tell how it startled me.
She stood in the middle of the room with a face of mildness bent upon me,
and her look of forgiveness, of absolution, made her angelic.
It beautified her; she was younger; she was not a ridiculous old woman.
This optical trick gave her a sort of phantasmagoric brightness,
and while I was still the victim of it I heard a whisper somewhere
in the depths of my conscience: "Why not, after all--why not?"
It seemed to me I was ready to pay the price. Still more distinctly
however than the whisper I heard Miss Tita's own voice. I was so struck
with the different effect she made upon me that at first I was not clearly
aware of what she was saying; then I perceived she had bade me goodbye--
she said something about hoping I should be very happy.

"Goodbye--goodbye?" I repeated with an inflection interrogative
and probably foolish.

I saw she did not feel the interrogation, she only heard the words;
she had strung herself up to accepting our separation and they
fell upon her ear as a proof. "Are you going today?" she asked.
"But it doesn't matter, for whenever you go I shall not see you again.
I don't want to." And she smiled strangely, with an infinite gentleness.
She had never doubted that I had left her the day before in horror.
How could she, since I had not come back before night to contradict,
even as a simple form, such an idea? And now she had the force of soul--
Miss Tita with force of soul was a new conception--to smile at me
in her humiliation.

"What shall you do--where shall you go?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't know. I have done the great thing.
I have destroyed the papers."

"Destroyed them?" I faltered.

"Yes; what was I to keep them for? I burned them last night,
one by one, in the kitchen."

"One by one?" I repeated, mechanically.

"It took a long time--there were so many." The room seemed to go round me
as she said this, and a real darkness for a moment descended upon my eyes.
When it passed Miss Tita was there still, but the transfiguration
was over and she had changed back to a plain, dingy, elderly person.
It was in this character she spoke as she said, "I can't stay with you longer,
I can't;" and it was in this character that she turned her back upon me,
as I had turned mine upon her twenty-four hours before, and moved to
the door of her room. Here she did what I had not done when I quitted her--
she paused long enough to give me one look. I have never forgotten it
and I sometimes still suffer from it, though it was not resentful.
No, there was no resentment, nothing hard or vindictive in poor Miss Tita;
for when, later, I sent her in exchange for the portrait of Jeffrey Aspern
a larger sum of money than I had hoped to be able to gather for her,
writing to her that I had sold the picture, she kept it with thanks;
she never sent it back. I wrote to her that I had sold the picture,
but I admitted to Mrs. Prest, at the time (I met her in London,
in the autumn), that it hangs above my writing table. When I look at it
my chagrin at the loss of the letters becomes almost intolerable.

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