Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Miss Eberle and Mr. Sullivan (II)

When the term ended Matilda carried her finished compositions back to her apartment, and as soon as Isabel went out on an errand she opened her portfolio and spread the drawings and her few tentative essays in painting around the rooms, propping them up on chairs and bureaus in order to give the collection a considered look in the afternoon sunlight. She was not impressed. Matilda was not in the habit of harboring false illusions, about herself or about anything else, and in the end it pained her very little to come to the unshakable conclusion that she would never make an artist. Before she had a chance to put her work away Isabel returned; she sized up the situation immediately and silently withdrew to her bedroom. By the time she emerged, her roommate had completely reconciled herself to her failed vocation and announced her firm intention of withdrawing from the school before classes resumed in January. Isabel asked her what she would do and Matilda said that she would have to think.

When she returned home for the holiday break her parents accepted her decision without objection. Her mother seemed to assume that her dropping out would have no bearing on her continued occupancy of her Village apartment, and Matilda, though she did not at bottom doubt her mother's fondness for her, suspected that she considered the stage of her daughter's life in which she lived at home to have come to an end. Matilda decided, on reflection, that this suited her as well, provided that her father continued to pick up the tab for her rent, which he was evidently amenable to doing.

After the New Year she filled a trunk with some additional clothes and a few keepsakes from her old bedroom and returned to the Village. Isabel was thrilled and immediately began to plan outings for the pair in the environs, including some rather seedy districts in which her beau would have to be enlisted as escort. For two weeks Matilda uncomplainingly allowed herself to be squired around town, ranging as far as Staten Island and the Jersey shore on one occasion, but once classes resumed Isabel's days were again largely occupied, and Matilda found herself left to make her own amusement. This was not unpleasant for her -- she had never really been much of a social butterfly -- but after spending the latter part of a rather grim and rainy January window-shopping and walking down cobblestone backstreets she decided that she would need to find an occupation. She did not, in the end, want to be an ongoing burden on her father's finances, though she suspected that the amount he expended on her rent was well within his means.

There were a number of small clothing manufacturers in the neighborhood, most of whom had signs advertising for seamstresses in their windows, but Matilda's mother had not set high store on such homely occupations as sewing, and as a result Matilda's skills in that regard were negligible. After a little looking around she found employment in a little bookshop off Fourth Avenue, but she was evidently ill-suited for this as well, as she had never heard of most of the titles the customers were seeking and could not seem to learn the system -- a rather eccentric and arbitrary one, it seemed to her -- by which the books were shelved. After a week of having to come to her rescue for even the simplest requests, the manager gently sacked her. Isabel told Matilda that Friedrich had offered to find her employment as a waitress in a club whose owner he knew through some connection or other, but she said it in such a way, raising an eyebrow and looking altogether rather doubtful about the matter, that Matilda deduced that even Isabel, who was liberal-minded in most things, thought that the establishment in question was probably not suitable.

Her search for gainful employment frustrated, but unwilling to be idle, Matilda at last hit upon the idea of offering her services to her old school. Isabel had mentioned, without any implied allusion to Matilda's situation, that some of the academy's models had recently departed, but when Matilda applied to the directress she was told quite firmly that there were no positions open. (Only afterwards did it occur to her that the school's reputation might be damaged if word got around that a student -- even a former student -- had disrobed in class.) Undeterred, she located a less fastidious institution, a night school whose sign she had spotted in the window of the upper storey of a building on McDougall, and was instantly accepted.

The students at the academy were mostly men; the handful of women, most of whom Matilda took for recent immigrants, seemed to have enrolled there by mistake. It was quickly evident that the level of instruction was rudimentary -- the sole instructor, though apparently legitimate, seemed quite befuddled about how to go about teaching pupils who demonstrated neither aptitude nor the ability to concentrate on their task -- and that the men had, in fact, come only for the view. Matilda, who might have been offended by the scam, took it with equanimity; she regarded her presence in the studio as a commercial transaction, an exchange from which both parties derived benefit with no apparent harm done to either. She did not, it was true, inform her parents of her modeling activities, but she did not conceal them from Isabel, who, when she was admitted to the secret, seemed filled with newfound admiration for the resourcefulness and daring of her roommate.

It was sleeting and a fierce wind was ricocheting between the rows of low buildings as Matilda arrived at her first evening session. She ascended the stairs and was ushered by a severe, middle-aged matron (whose presence was one of the academy's outward concessions to propriety) into a tiny windowless changing room that served double duty as a supply cabinet. By the light of a single overhead bulb she removed her overcoat and simple blue frock, and donned a rather dingy and threadbare robe that was several sizes too large for her. As soon as she had a chance to compose herself she stepped into the studio. To a man the presumptive artists looked up, lowering their pencils or brushes as they took the newcomer's measure. She was shown to a stool in one corner; the room was a bit drafty but not uncomfortably cool, and as soon as she had a chance to settle herself comfortably the matron give her a silent nod.

Matilda reached up to the collar of the robe and slowly pulled it loose, then straightened her shoulders slightly as it slid to her waist. The room was utterly, uncannily, silent as every pair of eyes was fixed upon her. She felt herself blush furiously and for a moment was certain that she was going to pass out, but after a moment she collected herself and began to breathe again. She folded her hands and shifted her spine, only once, to gain a better perch, and then sat quite still.

Some seconds passed before the men took up their implements again and began their halfhearted efforts at capturing her form. The matron strolled between the rows of easels, silently prompting the laggards with a raised eyebrow if necessary, and after a moment the instructor's voice could be heard mumbling advice to a student in the second row, who made a show of receiving it. The men scratched with their pencils, lifted their gaze, scratched again, all without a word. Matilda found that, after her initial discomposure had passed, she felt quite normal, in fact, that all her task demanded of her was to remain absolutely motionless and empty her thoughts, two things that she was more than usually good at. She didn't steal a look at the faces of the men as they worked, but neither did she cast her eyes downwards. Through a flyspecked window she could see an illuminated clock on the building opposite, and she stared out at it through the flakes of snow that had begun to fall and focused her eyes on the minute hand as it slowly circled the dial.

To be continued.

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