Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Miss Eberle and Mr. Sullivan (III)

Through the rest of the winter and into the spring Matilda modeled at least twice a week. There were classes every weeknight, but she was only one of several young women who alternated at the sessions, in order to provide what the academy described as "practice in capturing the variability of the human form" but which Matilda suspected was merely a ploy to keep the students from losing interest. From the end of March on, however, she was asked back at least three times a week, and on occasion even four, so she gathered that either some of the models had dropped out or her appearances were having a favorable effect on turnout. There was some turnover among the students -- the young women who had attended her first session had long since disappeared, to be replaced by others of their sex -- but several regulars continued to come nearly every week, and with two or three Matilda had developed a nodding, if silent, familiarity, though one that was strictly confined to the premises of the academy.

Her earnings for this activity were not substantial, but supplemented by a few odd jobs they were sufficient to cover her daily expenses, if not her rent, which her father continued to provide. Her parents displayed no curiosity about the source of her income -- like many persons of wealth they had long since lost any idea what it cost ordinary people to live or how difficult work was to come by -- and she didn't trouble to enlighten them. She visited at home once or twice a month for Sunday dinners, and now and then her mother breezed into town and brought her, and Isabel if she was at home, out to tea at a fashionable restaurant on lower Fifth Avenue.

In the evenings, if they had no other plans, Isabel and Friedrich would often invite Matilda out for drinks at one of the busy little cafés on Eighth Street or Bleecker. Neither young woman had acquired much of a taste for liquor -- Matilda's mother, in spite of her reputation for being modern in all things, never touched anything stronger than wine -- but it seemed to amuse Friedrich, who himself drank only beer, to order the latest and most potent novelty cocktails for his companions to sample, and this manner Matilda and Isabel partook of -- or at least sipped at -- a bewildering succession of highballs, manhattans, daiquiris, rickeys, slings, and fizzes, none of which were terribly much to their liking, although they did admire the ones that had pretty colors.

It was on one of these evenings, about ten o'clock, that a man in his middle twenties, exiting the dark recesses of the inner barroom and squeezing by their table, hesitated politely for a moment while Isabel pulled in her chair to allow him passage. As he thanked her Matilda looked up from the other side of the table and happened to catch his eye. For a brief moment she didn't remember where she knew him from, and by the time she did it was too late; she had already smiled and greeted him. He was one of her regulars, a quiet young man who sat in the back and wore a weathered corduroy suit that did not quite fit him and which she suspected had been purchased second-hand. The young man seemed momentarily befuddled, as if he couldn't place her either, or simply from the shock of seeing her in an unfamiliar setting. In a reflex of manners he raised his grey fedora -- that at least seemed new -- smiled, and returned her greeting, and before he had a chance to collect himself and take his leave Friedrich, who was flush with cash that evening and in high spirits, had risen from his chair, extended a hand, and insisted that he join them. He of course declined and began to withdraw, but Friedrich waved away his objections and grabbed another chair with such authority that, short of seeming ungrateful and boorish, retreat would have been impossible. The man reluctantly took the proffered chair and Friedrich at once summoned the waiter. He stood the man a drink and himself one at the same time, and would have replenished the ladies' glasses as well had they not only just barely begun their previous round of cocktails.

As introductions were now inevitable the man said that his name was Sullivan. He had a given name of course, but he had either misplaced it or didn't care for it; on the masthead of the several, mostly insolvent, little magazines with which he was nominally affiliated he was listed only as T. Sullivan. His friends, or better acquaintances as he had no intimate friends to speak of, sometimes called him Sully, but if they were observant they noticed that this made him quietly cross and did not repeat the mistake. He scratched out a living writing articles and reviews, generally of a political or artistic bent; as such work generally paid little -- or sometimes not at all -- he was forced to do a great deal of it, and to supplement his income by selling off review copies, when he had them, on Fourth Avenue. He was soft-featured and slightly built -- noticeably so next to the robust Friedrich -- but Isabel decided that he was not disagreeable to look at and indicated as much with a surreptitious wink to her roommate, though without suspecting the source of their acquaintanceship. She failed to notice that Matilda herself, though maintaining an outwardly pleasant expression, had suddenly become quite tense, and while Friedrich buttonholed the newcomer she was stirring and sipping her drink with an almost physically painful precision.

The man -- Sullivan -- stayed only long enough to finish his drink, them made his excuses, a trifle abruptly, barely making eye contact with Matilda before leaving. Later that evening, after Matilda had revealed to Isabel how she knew him, the pair giggled themselves into exhaustion before retiring to bed.

To be continued.

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