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.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Useful Plants of Guam

(William Edwin Safford's 1905 ethnobotanical classic has just been re-issued in a handsome facsimile edition by Guamology Publishing. Below are excerpts from a piece about the book that I originally posted in 2002.)

An Annapolis graduate who did postgraduate work in botany and zoology at Harvard and Yale, William Edwin Safford spent twenty years as an officer in the US Navy. Posted to Guam shortly after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, he was designated vice-governor of the colony, lately ceded to the US by Spain, and took advantage of his stay there to compile for the American government a survey of the history, inhabitants, and agricultural resources of the island, which was published in 1905 as Contributions from the United States National Herbarium Vol. IX: The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam; with an Introductory Account of the Physical Features and Natural History of the Island, of the Character and History of its People, and of their Agriculture. He also compiled what was said to be the first grammar of the island's language, The Chamorro Language of Guam, as well as a number of articles in scientific journals. He left the Navy in 1902, becoming thereafter a botanist for the United States Department of Agriculture, and died in 1926.

I owe my knowledge of the existence of this volume, which is usually referred to by the marginally snappier title of Useful Plants of Guam, to a mention in the bibliography of a 1952 book entitled Plants, Man & Life, written by an ethnobotanist named Edgar Anderson. Here is Anderson's description of the book:
Under this modest title is hidden one of the world's most fascinating volumes. The author, who apparently came as close to knowing everything about everything as is possible in modern times, was professionally both a botanist in the United States Department of Agriculture and a lieutenant in the United States Navy. In this latter capacity he served for a year as assistant governor of Guam. In somewhat over four hundred pages he not only takes up all the native and crop plants of any importance, but also touches on such subjects as the history of pirates in the Pacific, how floating seeds led to the discovery of ocean currents, the grammar of the native language, the actual anatomical means by which stinging plants attain their devilish ends, and the aspect of the various kinds of tropical vegetation on the island, each of these digressions being developed with finicky regard for accuracy and appropriately embellished with authoritative footnotes.
As if that were not enough of an inducement, Anderson gives a sample of Safford's prose, from the book's Introduction:
During a series of cruises in the Pacific Ocean the routine of my official duties was pleasantly broken by frequent excursions on shore for the purpose of collecting material for the United States National Museum, as well as for recreation. While sitting in native huts and while wading upon coral reefs, traversing forests and climbing mountains, I interested myself in taking notes on the languages and customs of the natives, their arts, medicines, food materials, and the manner of preparing them, and the origin of their dyes, paints, fibers for fishing nets and lines, materials for mat making and thatching, woods used in constructing their houses and canoes, and gums and resins used in calking… . It occurred to me, therefore, that a popular work on the useful plants of Polynesia would be welcome, and I set out accordingly to gather together such information as I could for this purpose.
The relaxed flow of Safford's words, the reasonableness of his logic, seemed to indicate a writer who was no ordinary bureaucratic pencil-pusher; clearly this was a man who, in addition to possessing a mastery of his abstruse subject matter (or rather matters), brought to his work a breadth of knowledge and a geniality not usually displayed by the authors of scholarly monographs and government reports.

Finding a copy of Safford's book was no easy task, however. Published in 1905, it was long out-of-print. Local libraries didn't have it; used booksellers had never heard of it. With the advent of online bookselling on the Web, second-hand copies occasionally showed up for sale, but not at prices I was willing to pay for a book I had never so much as seen.

In the meantime, another tantalizing reference turned up, this time in a 1997 book by Oliver Sacks. The Island of the Colorblind is an account of the neurologist's medical investigations of unusual epidemics in two mid-Pacific locales: colorblindness on the island of Pingelap; and a debilitating neurological illness in Safford's old plant-hunting grounds, the island of Guam. Sacks happened upon a copy of Useful Plants while visiting the island; his appraisal of the book echoed Anderson's:
I had thought, from the title, that it was going to be a narrow, rather technical book on rice and yams, though I hoped it would have some interesting drawings of cycads as well. But its title was deceptively modest, for it seemed to contain, in its four hundred densely packed pages, a detailed account not only of the plants, the animals, the geology of Guam, but a deeply sympathetic account of Chamorro life and culture, from their foods, their crafts, their boats, their houses, to their language, their myths and rituals, their philosophical and religious belief.
So matters stood for some time; Useful Plants of of Guam remained in the back of my mind and on my list of books to look for, but the likelihood of ever getting my hands on a copy without expending a substantial amount of time, energy, or money (or all three) seemed low. One day, more or less as an afterthought, I put in a request for Safford's book through my local library, which at times performs wonders in tracking down obscure titles. When a few weeks passed and I heard nothing, I assumed that the trail had gone cold, that the few copies of the book stored on university shelves and in government archives were not available to be lent out to the general public. But one evening, after receiving a call regarding the arrival of another book I had reserved, I came home and found that my wife had been at the library that day and picked up not only the other book, but the Safford as well. After years of anticipation I finally had the opportunity to judge for myself the merit of the book's glowing notices. So how does it hold up?

The answer, I think, is that it holds up pretty well. Granted, Safford's book is probably no one's idea of beach reading, but woven into the material of what is, in essence, a descriptive and fairly technical catalog of the plant life of one Pacific island, is a wealth of little-known ethnographic, historical, and botanical lore, presented in a clear, direct, and often amusing manner by an unpretentious and well-informed scholar who is comfortable in several disciplines. There are some seventy plates which, though in black-and-white, nicely accompany and illustrate the text; there is also a delicate folding map of Guam. To be sure, only the specialist will be able to make anything of passages like the following (though for the word-lover there is a certain bizarre poetry in them):
A branching, often rambling, evergreen shrub, common near the coast, bearing clusters of white, tubular, honeysuckle-like flowers with exserted stamens. Leaves opposite, rarely ternate, obovate or elliptic, subobtuse, entire, glabrate; cymes axillary with small linear bracts; calyx campanulate, minutely 5-toothed; in fruit somewhat enlarged, subtruncate, closely embracing the base of the drupe; corolla white, tube long and slender, limb 5-fid, lobes oblong; stamens 4, anthers long-exserted, filaments usually reddish; ovary imperfectly 4-celled, 4-ovuled; drupe separating into 4 woody nutlets; seeds oblong.
But Safford's account of the early European exploration and conquest of the island is entertaining, judicious, and sympathetic; his description of human relations on the island are at times unexpectedly droll:
Adultery on the part of the man was punished in various manners. Sometimes the injured wife would call together the other women of the village, and putting on their husbands' hats and arming themselves with spears, they would go to the house of the adulterer, destroy his growing crops, and, making a demonstration as though about to spear him, they would drive him from his house. At other times the injured wife would punish her husband by deserting him, whereupon her relations would assemble at his house and carry away all the property, leaving him without even a spear or a mat to sleep upon — nothing but the mere shell of the house. Sometimes they would even demolish the house itself.
His pocket essays on the utilization by the islanders of their native and imported botanical resources can be vivid and fascinating, opening a window into a far-distant (and now, presumably, long gone) world:
Another use to which the natives of Guam apply the meat of the coconut is the fattening of the “robber crab” (Birgus latro), which they keep in captivity until fit for the table. It has often been asserted that this singular animal climbs trees in search of coconuts, detaches them with its claws, letting them drop to the ground, and then proceeds to tear off the husk and open them. On making inquiries among the natives, I was unable to find anyone who had seen an 'ayuyu' climb a tree, but was told that the animal feeds upon nuts which have already fallen. It can not open a nut unassisted, but if an opening has been started it will succeed in getting at the kernel. Crab hunters carry coconuts to the sites frequented by the 'ayuyu,' and, after having made an incipient opening in each nut, leave it as bait. A crab soon discovers it, and is caught while engaged in opening it.
Only the most diligent lay reader would attempt to read the book from cover to cover, but for anyone willing to plunge in at random — or to simply read the hundred or so pages of introductory material, Safford still has much to offer.

His appraisal of the island may have had its practical value for early 20th-century American entrepreneurs on the lookout for profitable sources of raw materials (copra, kapok, tapioca), and perhaps that was part of its intent. Its value to botanists would have been — and perhaps still is — immense. But neither of those purposes can explain the human qualities that come through in its pages, the curiosity, the lack of prejudice, the touches of humor; all of that is Safford's unique contribution. An historian in some distant future, having no knowledge of our civilization other than a copy of Safford, would have a great deal indeed: an encapsulation of everything one talented observer could relate about one obscure but not unconnected part of the earth and how human beings lived in it.

Books like Safford's are no longer written. It's not that our contemporaries lack the talent, or the specialized knowledge required; what is missing is the breadth, the confidence, and perhaps most of all, the patron. In Safford's America the preparation of a detailed, literate, fair-minded account of a tiny Pacific island was considered to be a legitimate reason for public expenditure; such is, I suspect, no longer the case. If the Starr Report could be said to represent the low point in American civic culture in the 20th century, perhaps the high-water mark was Contributions from the United States National Herbarium Vol. IX, otherwise known as William Safford's Useful Plants of Guam.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ancient Tales & Folk-Lore of Japan

This is way out of my price range, but what a gorgeous book this must be. "A great thick book of folk tales, illustrated with 62 full page color plates. Bound in grey cloth boards, illustrated in gold and black of a moon light and flower scene." Written by R. Gordon Smith and published by A. & C. Black in 1908, it's being offered for sale through ABE by Alcuin Books, as part of their promotion, 30 More Old Books Worth Buying For the Cover Alone. The spine lettering appears to be embossed, and the lettering on the cover may be raised.

There's an inexpensive reprint edition available as well, so I guess I'll settle for that.

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.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Death at the Five Points

(In the 1850s, fired by missionary zeal, the ladies of the Five Points Mission in Manhattan bravely battled poverty, squalor, intemperance, competing missionaries, the Roman Catholic Church, and that most alarming of heathenish practices: an Irish wake.)
During the hot weather in August, many died from the intense heat, and one death from this cause occurred in our building. Dr. McNaire called upon me to visit the dying woman, whom I found lying on the floor with her head slightly elevated on a chair, turned down on the face — her mouth filled with foam, and her pulse quick and thready. A number of Irish, newly arrived, were sitting around, or lying on the boxes in the room. It was a solemn scene. I knelt and poured out my soul in prayer to God; but, oh! how fearful to pray at such an hour — when life is ebbing away, and every moment may decide the destiny of the soul "quivering on the ridge of life."

Just as I had ended the prayer, Mrs. F., who rented the room where the sick woman lay, came running in, and seeing that she was dying, went immediately for a priest, to perform extreme unction, and as I came out, I met him going in. The woman soon died.

Then commenced the preparations for a wake. I gave orders that it should not be; but my orders were disregarded. At midnight, I heard that wild wail rolling upon the air, and I was reminded of that ancient cry at midnight in the land of Egypt, when Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants, and all the Egyptians, and there was not a house where there was not one dead. I thought, too, of the startling summons sounding out at midnight: "Behold the bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet him." I waited awhile, and while it was still dark, I went up to the room of death. There stood two rows of women, with their left hands around each other's waists, and their right beating upon their lips, making, as they shouted, a most horrible noise. Most of the women had never known the deceased until they saw her in her dying agonies, and yet the tears rolled down their cheeks in torrents. I succeeded at last, much to my joy, in breaking up this strange wild scene of frantic wo.
From The Old Brewery and the New Mission House at the Five Points, by the Ladies of the Mission; New York, Stringer & Townsend, 1854.

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.

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.