Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Miss Eberle and Mr. Sullivan (IV)

Mr. T. Sullivan did not appear at Matilda's next modeling session, nor the one that followed it, and she decided that he probably felt that any further attendance on his part, now that they had been, however fleetingly, introduced socially, would constitute an embarrassment for her, or for him, or for both parties. But his absence must have been due to other reasons, or perhaps he had simply changed his mind, for there he was, the following week, at his usual easel in the back in the room. Though she caught sight of him as soon as she entered the room and climbed onto her stool, she pointedly avoided looking in his direction; not that she ever made eye contact with the students, if she could avoid it. She had to confess that she felt a little more flushed than usual as she disrobed that evening, but she by now regarded herself as an old pro at the business; she drew in a deep breath, lifted her chin, and carried on. Mr. Sullivan did not greet her or otherwise presume upon their fleeting acquaintanceship. Instead he went about his mute labors with the same seriousness as before, barely nodding when the instructor passed behind him and muttered a few words of encouragement or advice. When the hour was up Matilda retired to her changing room, donned her street clothes, and departed exactly as she always did, though she may have walked home a trifle more quickly than was her custom.

For several weeks his attendance was sporadic and unpredictable. At one point she thought that he had gone for good, but he returned again, and for a time appeared more regularly. She wondered -- not that she cared, mind you -- if he showed up more consistently when her fellow models were scheduled to work, for though the school did not officially announce who was slated to appear in advance, it seemed to Matilda that word did somehow seem to get around.

It was not until one evening in early June, when she had almost forgotten Mr. Sullivan entirely and was walking home from a session beneath the gently stirring sweetgum trees that lined Washington Square, that she heard a voice she didn't immediately recognize hailing her by name from behind. She ignored it at first, and quickened her step as unobtrusively as she could, but the voice came again, closer this time, and as she was not absolutely alone -- there were clusters of other pedestrians around her, out taking the air -- she decided that there was no harm in turning to see who it was. When she did so she was surprised -- and not a little aghast -- to see Mr. Sullivan advancing upon her, out of breath and with some apparent urgency. He raised his had and begged her pardon for having followed her, and before she could even acknowledge his apology had begun a nervous and rambling statement of his purpose. He told Matilda that although his own artistic limitations were no doubt mostly to blame, he found himself entirely unable to concentrate on his work in the distracting presence of other students whose devotion to the task lacked, might he say, the essential seriousness that artistic creation required, that the instructor's approach was hidebound and academic and showed no sign of familiarity with the exciting new developments in Europe with which Miss Sullivan was herself no doubt well aware, that the artificial light was harsh and uneven, in short, that he wondered if Matilda was available for private sessions, for which, naturally, she would be paid -- though he was not a man of means, by any measure -- her usual fee, and perhaps a small premium, if, that is, she were willing and felt comfortable with the arrangement --

Here he broke off. He appeared utterly flustered, as if he hadn't fully expected to make it all the way through his declaration and was now at a complete loss as to what to do next. He let his hands dropped to his sides and backed away a half-step, and Matilda thought that he was considering whether to cut his losses and beat a quick retreat before the encounter became even more painfully awkward than it already was. Thoroughly discomposed herself, she at least had the presence of mind to make an outward show of weighing his proposal, though at that moment it seemed to her to be the most appalling suggestion she could possibly imagine. In her confusion she heard herself replying that she would take his proposal under advisement; even as she spoke the words she wondered how she had managed to come up with such an absurd formulation. She blurted a quick good evening, turned away, and resumed her homeward course; to her infinite relief she heard his footsteps promptly departing in another direction.

That night Matilda gave more serious thought to her present position than she had done in some time. She was willing to admit that she had rather enjoyed the dalliance with impropriety in which she had for several months been engaged, and that she had more than once imagined with delight the mixture of horror and secret envy that her activities would provoke should they ever become known to her old schoolmates. But putting herself in the position of being propositioned by unsavory individuals like Mr. Sullivan was, frankly, a little deeper water than she had reckoned on. Perhaps it was time to make for dryer ground, and to abandon her incipient career. A few days later she gave notice at the academy, and by the middle of the month Matilda Eberle was no longer employed on its premises.

To be continued.

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