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The Aspern Papers

Chapter I
I had taken Mrs. Prest into my confidence; in truth without her I should have
made but little advance, for the fruitful idea in the whole business dropped from
her friendly lips. It was she who invented the short cut, who severed the Gordian
knot. It is not supposed to be the nature of women to rise as a general thing to
the largest and most liberal view--I mean of a practical scheme; but it has struck
me that they sometimes throw off a bold conception-- such as a man would not
have risen to--with singular serenity. "Simply ask them to take you in on the
footing of a lodger"-- I don't think that unaided I should have risen to that. I was
beating about the bush, trying to be ingenious, wondering by what combination of
arts I might become an acquaintance, when she offered this happy suggestion
that the way to become an acquaintance was first to become an inmate. Her
actual knowledge of the Misses Bordereau was scarcely larger than mine, and
indeed I had brought with me from England some definite facts which were new
to her. Their name had been mixed up ages before with one of the greatest
names of the century, and they lived now in Venice in obscurity, on very small
means, unvisited, unapproachable, in a dilapidated old palace on an out-of-the-
way canal: this was the substance of my friend's impression of them. She herself
had been established in Venice for fifteen years and had done a great deal of
good there; but the circle of her benevolence did not include the two shy,
mysterious and, as it was somehow supposed, scarcely respectable Americans
(they were believed to have lost in their long exile all national quality, besides
having had, as their name implied, some French strain in their origin), who asked
no favors and desired no attention. In the early years of her residence she had
made an attempt to see them, but this had been successful only as regards the
little one, as Mrs. Prest called the niece; though in reality as I afterward learned
she was considerably the bigger of the two. She had heard Miss Bordereau was
ill and had a suspicion that she was in want; and she had gone to the house to
offer assistance, so that if there were suffering (and American suffering), she
should at least not have it on her conscience. The "little one" received her in the
great cold, tarnished Venetian sala, the central hall of the house, paved with
marble and roofed with dim crossbeams, and did not even ask her to sit down.
This was not encouraging for me, who wished to sit so fast, and I remarked as
much to Mrs. Prest. She however replied with profundity, "Ah, but there's all the
difference: I went to confer a favor and you will go to ask one. If they are proud
you will be on the right side." And she offered to show me their house to begin
with--to row me thither in her gondola. I let her know that I had already been to
look at it half a dozen times; but I accepted her invitation, for it charmed me to
hover about the place. I had made my way to it the day after my arrival in Venice
(it had been described to me in advance by the friend in England to whom I owed
definite information as to their possession of the papers), and I had besieged it
with my eyes while I considered my plan of campaign. Jeffrey Aspern had never
been in it that I knew of; but some note of his voice seemed to abide there by a
roundabout implication, a faint reverberation.