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The Aspern Papers

Chapter II
"I must work the garden--I must work the garden," I said to myself, five minutes
later, as I waited, upstairs, in the long, dusky sala, where the bare scagliola floor
gleamed vaguely in a chink of the closed shutters. The place was impressive but
it looked cold and cautious. Mrs. Prest had floated away, giving me a rendezvous
at the end of half an hour by some neighboring water steps; and I had been let
into the house, after pulling the rusty bell wire, by a little red-headed, white-faced
maidservant, who was very young and not ugly and wore clicking pattens and a
shawl in the fashion of a hood. She had not contented herself with opening the
door from above by the usual arrangement of a creaking pulley, though she had
looked down at me first from an upper window, dropping the inevitable challenge
which in Italy precedes the hospitable act. As a general thing I was irritated by
this survival of medieval manners, though as I liked the old I suppose I ought to
have liked it; but I was so determined to be genial that I took my false card out of
my pocket and held it up to her, smiling as if it were a magic token. It had the
effect of one indeed, for it brought her, as I say, all the way down. I begged her to
hand it to her mistress, having first written on it in Italian the words, "Could you
very kindly see a gentleman, an American, for a moment?" The little maid was
not hostile, and I reflected that even that was perhaps something gained. She
colored, she smiled and looked both frightened and pleased. I could see that my
arrival was a great affair, that visits were rare in that house, and that she was a
person who would have liked a sociable place. When she pushed forward the
heavy door behind me I felt that I had a foot in the citadel. She pattered across
the damp, stony lower hall and I followed her up the high staircase--stonier still,
as it seemed-- without an invitation. I think she had meant I should wait for her
below, but such was not my idea, and I took up my station in the sala. She flitted,
at the far end of it, into impenetrable regions, and I looked at the place with my
heart beating as I had known it to do in the dentist's parlor. It was gloomy and
stately, but it owed its character almost entirely to its noble shape and to the fine
architectural doors-- as high as the doors of houses--which, leading into the
various rooms, repeated themselves on either side at intervals. They were
surmounted with old faded painted escutcheons, and here and there, in the
spaces between them, brown pictures, which I perceived to be bad, in battered
frames, were suspended. With the exception of several straw-bottomed chairs
with their backs to the wall, the grand obscure vista contained nothing else to
minister to effect. It was evidently never used save as a passage, and little even
as that. I may add that by the time the door opened again through which the
maidservant had escaped, my eyes had grown used to the want of light.
I had not meant by my private ejaculation that I must myself cultivate the soil of
the tangled enclosure which lay beneath the windows, but the lady who came
toward me from the distance over the hard, shining floor might have supposed as
much from the way in which, as I went rapidly to meet her, I exclaimed, taking