Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 6

Going Over the Wall

In the next week, Barbara received a couple of crudely lettered threats that sounded like Joanna Porter. It seemed unlikely to Barbara that there was any real danger, but it certainly made her feel less carefree than before as she wandered alone around the school grounds.

One time, she was aware of a group of three junior girls on a walk in front of her. They whispered and looked unpleasantly at her while she approached. Barbara was aware that, in her middle heels, she could be knocked down or tripped easily. They had the walk almost blocked, but she aimed for the narrow opening they had left. No one spoke, but neither did they do anything as Barbara felt her skirt swish against theirs.

The next day, when she was in the art room, another girl jostled Barbara as she was using a pen knife. It might actually have been an accident, but she cut her finger deeply. While the cut hardly hurt, it was necessary to hold the finger up and wrap it to control the bleeding. Sister Margaret, who doubled as the nurse, was summoned. She took a look at it and said,

"It's going to need some stitches, and I'm not competent to do that. We'll go in to see Doctor Winton."

Barbara was still holding her finger up with a pad wrapped around it as Sister Margaret drove the school car. The latter was the youngest nun, and drove with considerable verve and speed. Barbara remarked,

"It's good to get away from the school. I'll have to do this again some time."

"You and me both. I thought I liked teaching, but this place is something else."

The conversation got rapidly more personal, and, by the time that they reached downtown Bollinger, Sister Margaret had indicated that she was thinking of leaving the Order. Barbara asked,

"Do you have to get permission to do that?"

"Yeah, unless you just leave the church altogether, which I probably wouldn't do. It must be easy to get, though. Half the girls I started with are gone."

The doctor was a very large man who looked, Barbara thought, just a little foolish. He turned out to be nice and gentle, and not foolish at all. It was only his English accent that made him unusual. As soon as he saw the finger, Dr. Winton held it up and said,

"Artistic creation has its perils."

"It's not as perilous as being around other girls. One of them bumped me while I was using the knife."

"I hope it wasn't on purpose."

"It probably was. I was forced to whip one of her friends the other night."

Dr. Winton looked at Barbara in some wonder. Sister Margaret was in the outer office, talking with the nurse, and he seemed to be in no hurry. As he carefully stitched up her finger, Barbara told the whole story, pausing only momentarily for the little pricks of pain. She was aware of having rather run off at the mouth, but the doctor didn't seem to mind. At length, he said,

"I'm the doctor out there, but I had no idea that things like that went on. I'm not a psychiatrist, but I'm sure that's not healthy."

"The theory is that it prepares us for nasty adult life."

"That's nasty indeed. Normal adults don't ordinarily whip each other."

"No, I suppose not."

"It sounds like the sort of English public school I attended for a while. Boys are virtually taught to take pleasure in certain forms of sado-masochism."

Barbara whispered as she pointed to the outer office, where Sister Margaret was still speaking with the nurse.

"She doesn't like it either. She's thinking of going over the wall."

Doctor Winton nodded and replied, also in a whisper.

"I don't wonder. I've worked with her out at the school, and she seems a nice person."

They then drifted out to the outer office, where Dr. Winton gave a few instructions to Sister Margaret. Then, when they were just about to leave, the doctor thought of something else, and addressed Barbara,

"By the way, I have a young cousin here, just a little older than yourself. He's a Harvard man, but I'm helping him recover from some trouble with his stomach. He's at loose ends, and I wonder if it'd be all right if he went out to visit you some time."

Barbara agreed enthusiastically and gave the telephone number. The doctor replied,

"His name is Howie. If you don't like him, or he's a nuisance, just tell him to get lost."

When they came out, Sister Margaret said,

"Having a doctor for a cousin is a good way of getting dates. I bet he's got an ulcer."

"It must be pretty serious to keep him out of college in the middle of a term. Let's go over to that cafe and have a snack. We can say we had to wait a while."

"St. Monica's girls aren't supposed to lie, much less get the sisters to. But, okay, I'm in a funny mood."

When they were seated with coffee and doughnuts, Sister Margaret said,

"I had quite a talk with the nurse while you were with the doctor, except she isn't really a nurse any more than I am. She used to be a nun, but quit. She didn't get permission, she just left. Then she got married and had two kids. Now she's a Quaker."

"Are you going to do that, too?"

"I think I'd like to, but I'm not sure I'm attractive enough to get a man. If you're an old maid, it's better to be in the Order. They'll always take care of you."

"I bet you'd look nice in ordinary clothes. There must be a dress shop around here. Why don't we find one? You could try on a few things and see how you look."

"Boy, that would blow their minds, I bet, to have a nun come in and try on dresses."

"It'd take more than that to keep them from trying to sell you clothes."

It took almost no persuasion to get Sister Margaret into Bella's Boutique, only a few doors down the street. Barbara knew something about clothes, and she also knew that, once Sister Margaret was in an ordinary dress, her first look in the mirror would be decisive. She would decide, right then and there, whether she could make it in the outside world.

The saleslady, probably Bella herself, was a bright overbearing woman who had thought that she knew exactly what to say to any possible type of customer. It amused Barbara to see her temporarily taken aback. Before Bella recovered, Barbara managed to intimate to her that price was no object. Then, having removed Margaret's head covering, they held dresses up to her. Although she seemed somewhat confused and passive, a pink wool dress was chosen. Barbara waited while the saleslady went in to the fitting room to help Margaret change.

When Margaret emerged, she was immediately revealed to be really a rather pretty young woman in her early twenties. When she looked in the full-length mirror, she was pleasantly surprised. It might have been some time since she had been in a civilian dress, and, even then, it had probably been a rather dowdy one. Barbara told her,

"You look very nice. With better shoes and a better hair- style you'd look great."

Margaret turned one way and then the other, looking back over her shoulder at the mirror. She whispered to Barbara,

"I wish I didn't have to go back there. For two cents I'd hop on a train for Chicago and leave them all flat."

Barbara, feeling that Margaret didn't yet really mean it, suggested that they go back to the cafe to talk.

It took a long time. Barbara knew that the school must have called Dr. Winton to see if they had been there. She hoped that they hadn't yet called the police. Margaret, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to the time. Having definitely decided to leave the school and Order, she was in the throes of deciding whether to follow Mrs. Badgett's example and leave the church as well. Barbara, knowing how persuasive Sister Rose could be, was afraid that Margaret would be talked into staying. She asked,

"If you do leave, would you want to teach in a parochial school?"

"I don't think so. No. I'd much rather teach in a public school."

"I've heard that they're looking for math teachers in Chicago. Probably lots of other places too."

"I've got an Illinois teacher's certificate. I guess I could get a job as a substitute right off, and then get a regular job next year."

Barbara replied,

"Then you don't really need anything from Sister Rose, not even a recommendation."

"I guess not."

For the first time in her life, Barbara felt that she was witnessing something really critical. She had read about moments such as these in novels, and she recognized the real thing when she saw it. Finding herself unafraid, she said,

"If you go back at all, you'll have to argue it out with Sister Rose. Why not just take the train to Chicago?"

The practical objections then came up. Margaret had practically no money with her. Her things were back at the school. If she simply disappeared, they'd call the police.

Barbara dealt with these matters rather offhandedly, as if she herself weren't urging Margaret on. First, her mother had given her travellers' checks to be cashed if the need arose. These would easily finance Margaret for the time being. The latter could pay her back later on when she had a job. Second, Barbara would collect Margaret's things and take them to Wilmette when she went back for Thanksgiving vacation. Third, Margaret could give her a brief note for Sister Rose. It would give her resignation, but wouldn't attempt an explanation. That would keep them from calling the police. Barbara had her license, and would drive the car back.

Barbara was aware of making it all sound wonderfully simple, which, on one level, it was. For the rest, she was convinced that Margaret had already made most of her decision weeks or months previously. The last hurdle was now crossed. Margaret nodded defiantly and said,

"Yes, goddamit, I'll do it."

They went first to the bank to cash the checks, and Barbara then sent Margaret back to the store to buy the dress she had tried on. As they parted, she added,

"See if they have some shoes, too. I'll be over in a couple of minutes."

She then went back to Dr. Winton's office. Mrs. Badgett greeted her with,

"The school's called twice. They're frantic, wondering where you are."

Barbara explained quickly. As she did so, Dr. Winton emerged smiling. Barbara said,

"We're getting her some clothes now. Could you call the school back and tell them that you saw us having lunch, and that I said we'd be back when we finished? They won't like that, but it'll hold them. If they knew, they'd try to intercept Margaret at the train station."

Dr. Winton was delighted. Mrs. Badgett looked worried, but she made the call. Barbara then half ran down the street to Bella's Boutique. She could easily imagine a taxi full of nuns prowling around Bollinger, and she didn't think that Margaret, caught in a pink dress, would be able to withstand a confrontation.

The train station, only a few blocks distant, still had a layer of black soot left over from the days of coal-burning locomotives. It was almost empty inside, and didn't look promising. Barbara suggested,

"If there isn't a train soon, you can take the bus."

By great good luck, there was a train in only a half hour. Margaret, after her initial euphoria, was rather quiet. Barbara asked,

"Will your family be upset?"

"My father's dead. My mother won't like it, but we're not close. My brothers will be delighted. They thought I was crazy to be a nun in the first place. In fact, I'll probably stay with Joe tonight. I'll get some money from him and pay you back."

"Don't worry about that at all. Get a job first."

The time hung heavy in the dark waiting room, but they soon went out to the platform. There was a light breeze off the prairie, but the warm autumn sunshine made it comfortable, even without coats. On the track, stretching straight to the horizon in both directions, there was no movement at all. It was hard to believe that trains still ran, much less that one was coming soon. Margaret was carrying the large bag which contained her habit, but was looking for a trash bin. As she said,

"I don't think I'll have any use for this, but I'm not sure what to do with it."

"I could take it back to school."

"That might make it look like you helped me. Here, I'll just tuck the bag behind this cart. I bet somebody'll be surprised."

When they next looked, there was a light far down the track. It didn't move at all for a long time, but finally seemed a little higher than before. Then, several people came out from the waiting room. None was a nun, but Barbara still feared a last minute interception.

Margaret took Barbara's hand as the engine rumbled and roared past them. Brakes screeched and dirt and soot flew, and the only coach with its staircase down rolled past. The other passengers had known where to stand, and the girls had to run. Margaret, not used to her shoes, had difficulty, but was half supported by Barbara. Near the steps, they both almost fell, but the conductor grabbed Margaret's arm. There was a brief embrace in which they put their arms around each other. Then Margaret was up the steps. As they waved, Margaret called down,

"I'll call you at your home at Thanksgiving."

Barbara, just struck by a thought, replied,

"Please call that number tonight, ask for my mother, and tell her everything that happened. Ask her to call me."

She could just hear Margaret promising to do so as the engineer opened up the diesel.

Barbara had once read that, if you save someone's life or do her a great service at a critical time, you are the one who's obligated. The other may feel gratitude, but, if so, it will be compromising to you. You will have to go on rescuing her as long as she lives because you are responsible for what she has become.

Barbara hadn't saved Margaret's life, or really changed its direction. On the other hand, it was this day which would later seem to Margaret to be, for better or worse, the big day in her life. Barbara had been there, and had certainly been a significant influence. She hoped fervently that it would be for the better.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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