Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Miss Eberle and Mr. Sullivan (I)

Matilda Eberle was eighteen years old. She was a little taller than other girls her age and passably pretty, though she was resigned to the idea that she would never be as pretty or as interesting as her mother, who though nearly fifty was said by nearly everyone who met her to be one of the most fascinating women they had ever met.

Matilda's father was in business. She wasn't sure exactly what that entailed -- whether he made things or owned things, or a little of both -- although one of her school chums who possibly was in a position to know had once made an offhand remark that implied that he owned a skyscraper, or perhaps more than one, on lower Broadway. He knew a lot of people, mostly of what seemed to Matilda a fairly dull sort -- bankers, lawyers, people with political connections -- and traveled quite often, ostensibly on business, though when he did so he nearly always called home once a day and spoke to his wife, or to Matilda if her mother was not at home. She had two older brothers, both still bachelors. They worked with their father but lived in an apartment in the city that the family had owned since her father was little. She saw them infrequently and when she did they were pleasant to her but made no effort to include her in their conversation.

Her mother had a reputation as a bit of a rad. She was friendly with artists and theatre people and subscribed to illustrated periodicals that Matilda never saw in any of her friends' homes, though Matilda wasn't sure that she had ever seen her mother read them. She went into town several evenings a week in the company of a variety of acquaintances, both male and female, and Matilda found it frustrating that she was never able to decide which -- if any -- of these might be her mother's lovers. Her father did not seem particularly put out by these comings and goings, and Matilda took this as a sign that he had arrangements of his own. Though her mother's activities never quite crossed the line into outward scandal she made it clear that she considered herself unbound by social convention and free to do as she pleased.

The fiercest term of opprobrium her mother could wield was "stingy"; "thrifty," spoken with a tone of withering sarcasm, was a distant second. She could be quite blunt about declaring to anyone within earshot that she and her family were New Yorkers, citizens of the most modern and sophisticated metropolis in the world, and not a bunch of grim, bottled-up, buttoned-down, penny-pinching New Englanders. (That the family actually resided in a mansion in New Rochelle within sight of the Sound she would have considered one of those petty objections that only the small-minded would raise.) She was adamant in her contempt for half-measures of any kind, whether it involved saving money by buying oysters of inferior quality for a dinner party or diving too tentatively off the dock at the lakefront resort where the family spent part of each summer.

There had been a German governess when Matilda was small, but her mother had found her too stern and after several quarrels had sacked her, and after that Matilda was left ungoverned until it was time for her to be sent to boarding school. She disliked the school but managed to survive it, proving herself at best a middling student, though she demonstrated a modest aptitude for foreign languages which was set down as her governess's one positive legacy. Upon graduation her mother raised the issue of college, but Matilda wasn't interested in becoming a teacher and had no particular desire to spend a further two or four years in the company of young woman of her set. She made a vague comment about possibly taking some art classes -- though her accomplishments in that direction to date were entirely unremarkable -- and her mother characteristically seized upon this, promptly enrolling her in an art academy in Greenwich Village. The idea of commuting having been waved off as impractical, suitable lodgings in the neighborhood were found through some connection of her mother's. She was to share the small but tidy second-floor apartment with another student two years her senior, whose name was Isabel.

To her surprise, she found herself quite liking Isabel, once they became well-acquainted enough to share each other's confidences. Matilda, for her part, had no secrets to speak of to confide, but Isabel, on the other hand, had a beau named Friedrich, and she left little doubt about the nature of their relationship, though her young man was not permitted by the landlord to call on her on the premises. He was said to be some sort of gangster, which if true Matilda regarded as a great disappointment and a poor reflection on the species, since he proved, when she eventually met him, to be outwardly as ordinary as a goldfish, a creature to which he bore as well more than a passing physical resemblance. His income seemed to fluctuate wildly. On some occasions he would be quite out of pocket and Isabel had to content herself with accompanying him for a cocktail or two at a nearby cafe; at other times he would show up flush with cash and had once even whisked her off for a weekend at Niagara Falls, at her suggestion to be sure.

Matilda purchased a smock at a store on West Fourth Street and for three months dutifully attended her lessons, though she considered that she was making scant progress in either the techniques her teachers attempted to impart to her or in discovering her vocation as a creative artist. The academy accepted only female students, mostly of means, and though there seemed at least to be a greater variety of type than she had encountered at boarding school she found that she had little interest in socializing with her fellow pupils. She instead went out evenings with Isabel and Friedrich, if she were invited, and otherwise occupied herself exploring the shops and alleys in the vicinity of Washington Square Park. When all else failed or if it rained she would retreat to the solitude of her room and leaf through magazines.

It was the unstated philosophy of the academy that any previous artistic instruction the students might have was of no value, an assumption that in Matilda's case was not far off the mark. As a consequence the pupils were first taught to copy simple two-dimensional forms in black-and-white, and were gradually exposed to a series of simple and rather generic artworks that they were expected to duplicate before they attempted to draw from life. Matilda's first still-life assignment consisted of a pineapple, which she found very daunting, and a shallow bowl that she made a complete muck of, though her instructress seemed pleased with her progress. For the next several weeks she executed a number of what seemed to her entirely unconvincing drawings, all of which involved a combination of utilitarian household objects and some variety of fruit, though thankfully never again a pineapple. Having almost mastered this process to her satisfaction, she was rather dumbfounded when she came to class one day and found herself presented with a live model, in the person of a comely young woman dressed in a simple white robe, the folds of which Matilda had no end of trouble with.

After an hour or so of this the young woman was allowed a break. When she returned to her stool, at a signal from the instructress she undid the top of the robe and let it drop to her waist, exposing her bare torso beneath. Matilda had not expected this, though she did not find it shocking, as her mother had never shown any particular concern for modesty; in fact she found it a relief to outline the simpler contours of the model's body rather than struggle with the awkward bunching of her robe. After another hour the young woman covered herself and withdrew into an adjoining room. As she did not re-emerge Matilda assumed that she had exited via another door after, presumably, changing into her street clothes.

The model, or another, as it was not always the same young woman, returned every session for two weeks. She would be instructed to assume various poses for the benefit of the class, and Matilda soon learned to sketch her from every conceivable angle, but she never entirely removed her robe. She maintained a uniformly pleasant if distant expression, and Matilda never heard her once speak a syllable. Isabel, who had taken the life drawing course the previous year, at first told Matilda that the models were prostitutes, but later admitted that she had only been teasing and in fact knew nothing about them, though she had heard that they were paid rather well for the sessions and that there was no shortage of prospective models. Most of them appeared to be in their late twenties or even in their thirties, and Matilda wondered if they had jobs or husbands -- she doubted the latter -- and whether their families knew and approved of their unusual line of employment.

To be continued.

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