“Not at all. I hate Misters, always.”
“Yes, so do I. I like one name only.”
The little officer seemed very winning and delightful to Aaron this evening—and Aaron began to like him extremely. But the dominating consciousness in the room was the woman’s.
“DO you agree, Mr. Sisson?” said the Marchesa. “Do you agree that the mock-innocence and the sham-wistfulness of Botticelli’s Venus are her great charms?”
“I don’t think she is at all charming, as a person,” said Aaron. “As a particular woman, she makes no impression on me at all. But as a picture—and the fresh air, particularly the fresh air. She doesn’t seem so much a woman, you know, as the kind of out-of-doors morning-feelings at the seaside.”
“Quite! A sort of sea-scape of a woman. With a perfectly sham innocence. Are you as keen on innocence as Manfredi is?”
“Innocence?” said Aaron. “It’s the sort of thing I don’t have much feeling about.”
“Ah, I know you,” laughed the soldier wickedly. “You are the sort of man who wants to be Anthony to Cleopatra. Ha-ha!”
Aaron winced as if struck. Then he too smiled, flattered. Yet he felt he had been struck! Did he want to be Anthony to Cleopatra? Without knowing, he was watching the Marchesa. And she was looking away, but knew he was watching her. And at last she turned her eyes to his, with a slow, dark smile, full of pain and fuller still of knowledge. A strange, dark, silent look of knowledge she gave him: from so far away, it seemed. And he felt all the bonds that held him melting away. His eyes remained fixed and gloomy, but with his mouth he smiled back at her. And he was terrified. He knew he was sulking towards her— sulking towards her. And he was terrified. But at the back of his mind, also, he knew there was Lilly, whom he might depend on. And also he wanted to sink towards her. The flesh and blood of him simply melted out, in desire towards her. Cost what may, he must come to her. And yet he knew at the same time that, cost what may, he must keep the power to recover himself from her. He must have his cake and eat it.
And she became Cleopatra to him. “Age cannot wither, nor custom stale—” To his instinctive, unwilled fancy, she was Cleopatra.
They went in to dinner, and he sat on her right hand. It was a smallish table, with a very few daisy-flowers: everything rather frail, and sparse. The food the same—nothing very heavy, all rather exquisite. They drank hock. And he was aware of her beautiful arms, and her bosom; her low-crowded, thick hair, parted in the centre: the sapphires on her throat, the heavy rings on her fingers: and the paint on her lips, the fard. Something deep, deep at the bottom of him hovered upon her, cleaved to her. Yet he was as if sightless, in a stupor. Who was she, what was she? He had lost all his grasp. Only he sat there, with his face turned to hers, or to her, all the time. And she talked to him. But she never looked at him.