Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 8

The Arrival of the Messenger

Barbara was in high spirits as she accelerated out of Bollinger. It was good to be driving again, and, practically alone in the vast space, she had a sense of wild abandon. It was partly dispelled when she saw the school buildings in the distance, but then she began thinking of the fun she would have on arrival. The first question would concern the whereabouts of Sister Margaret. Barbara thought about some of the answers she could give. The best, she thought, was a casual,

"Oh, she hopped on a train for Chicago."

The response would be incredulous. They might suspect her of not telling the truth, or even of joking. She would then hand over Margaret's note of resignation and watch the faces.

It also occurred to Barbara that they might ask her why she had remained in Bollinger so long. That was easy.

"I thought she might change her mind and come back. So I waited until she left."

They would surely ask why she hadn't called. That, too, was easy.

"I suggested it, but Sister Margaret told me not to."

A little Catholic girl, as docile as anyone could wish, would obey a nun to the last gasp. As Barbara turned into the long winding drive, she felt that she was well prepared.

The wheels crunched on the gravel when she crossed the little bridge over the creek, and she then saw the welcoming committee in front of the main building. To her surprise, it didn't include Sister Rose, but only Sister Mary Joseph and two other nuns.

Barbara drove up briskly, waved cheerfully, and stopped. Sister Mary Joseph looked at her bug-eyed, her mouth open. Barbara spoke pleasantly through the open window.

"Shall I take the car around to the garage, Sister?"

The reply came in a shaking voice.

"You, you .... Get out immediately."

Barbara alighted gracefully, gesturing inside,

"The keys are in the ignition."

Then came the question. Sister Mary Joseph made it sound as if she thought Barbara had murdered Sister Margaret and left her in a ditch. Barbara answered in a rather absent voice, as if she were trying to remember where she had left her coat.

"She got on a train. I think she may have gone to Chicago, or perhaps New Orleans."

Barbara was pleased with the way it came out. It was the right tone exactly. Sister Mary Joseph was utterly speechless. Sister Alice, a sweet ineffectual little woman, said,

"You mean she's not coming back at all?"

"I don't think so. She didn't say anything about it."

Seeing that Sister Mary Joseph was about to explode, Barbara added,

"She did give me a note for Sister Rose. I've got it here somewhere."

As Barbara rummaged through her bag, Sister Alice explained that Sister Rose was away for the weekend, at a conference, and wouldn't be back until Sunday. Barbara had to spread the contents of her bag out on the fender of the car in order to find the note. When it finally appeared, she gave a cry of satisfaction. It was in a sealed envelope with only Sister Rose's name on it. She handed it to Sister Mary Joseph. The latter snatched it and replied only,

"You wicked girl, go to your room immediately."

It had been amusing at first, but Barbara was getting irritated.

"What have I done that's wicked, Sister?"

Sister Mary Joseph, not very articulate, specialized in the steely-eyed stare. The present occasion required more, especially since Barbara was smiling at her condescendingly. Before she could get anything out beyond a few splutters, Barbara said,

"Have you forgotten what I did that was wicked, Sister? That's all right, we all have these little lapses of memory."

This last speech might have been a mistake. Barbara was now accused of insolence and impertinence. She was again ordered to her room. She was ordered not to come out until further notice. Sister Mary Joseph also promised to discipline her severely. Barbara, now even more angry, said,

"I suppose it's time I must go. It's been so good talking with you, Sister. Ta Ta."

With that, she turned, gave a little wave, and walked in a carefree fashion toward her dormitory.

Everyone was in class at that time, and Barbara went up to her room, locked the door, and began pounding the pillow with her fists. The injustice of it overwhelmed her, but she did reach one conclusion. Role A, unlike Role B, seemed to create enemies of a particularly virulent kind, among them Sister Mary Joseph. It might be better to replace it with something else. Indeed, a book she was now reading presented some new possibilities. Barbara therefore kicked off her shoes, hung up her uniform, and settled down on her bed to read.

The time passed without Barbara's realizing it until she heard strange noises outside her window. Looking outside, she saw that someone, she could see only that it was a nun, was trying to drive the car to the garage. There were screeches, jumps, skids, and, inevitably, stalls. Each time, the car moved another fifty feet or so. Barbara realized that Margaret had been the only nun who could drive. It was now late on a Friday afternoon, and the maintenance man and Mrs. Hanrahan would both be gone. Barbara watched with some pleasure as the car approached jerkily, throwing her window open for a better view.

The drive went right under Barbara's second floor window on the corner, made a ninety degree left turn around that corner, and then ran parallel to the creek until it reached the old barn that was used as a garage. When the car was about a hundred yards away, the driver finally managed to get the clutch fully engaged. Since she had been using a heavy foot on the accelerator to avoid stalling, the car now picked up enough speed to suggest that its driver had been trying to start in second gear. She had now succeeded, but so well that she would have to brake sharply and skid around the corner. Since Barbara was almost directly above the car, a big powerful Oldsmobile, it was impossible for her to see the driver. Afterwards, it seemed that the latter must have panicked and hit the accelerator rather than the brake.

Fortunately, there was no wall or large tree in the way, only a low grassy slope leading down to the muddy creek. The rough ground over which the car bounced had some slight braking effect. Then came the water with a great splash. The creek was only a few feet deep with a mud bottom, and the car ended up right in the middle of it.

It was really quite a soft landing, compared to what might have happened, and it seemed unlikely that the occupant would be hurt. However, the water was enough above the bottom of the door so that its occupant was trapped there until the water level inside the car equalled it. Given the nuns' knowledge of physics, the driver probably wouldn't realize why the door wouldn't open. After a few minutes, the door finally opened, and the nun half fell out, holding on to the door and sinking up to her waist.

It wasn't Sister Mary Joseph, as Barbara had hoped, but Sister Bernice, a fortyish nun she knew only vaguely. Sister Bernice was greatly hampered by her skirts as she stumbled and wallowed her way to the bank. She finally emerged only with difficulty, her feet encased in great gobs of mud. It was then that Sister Mary Joseph arrived. Barbara, still with her blouse on, leaned ostentatiously out of the window.

It was impossible to hear exactly what was said, but there was much flapping of voluminous black sleeves. Sister Bernice had obviously not known how to drive, and shouldn't have been blamed, but that fact didn't seem to inhibit Sister Mary Joseph. Sister Bernice, a pitiful bedraggled creature, was continuously berated as she trudged up the drive, a little stream running from her clothes back to the creek. It was then that Sister Mary Joseph saw Barbara. She was obviously about to say something, but then thought better of it, only pointing a shaking finger. It was a surprisingly menacing gesture. Barbara, anticipating a verbal accusation, was ready to say,

"If you had let me park the car, Sister, it would be all warm and snug at this moment."

She had been rather pleased with the phrasing, so incongruous in the circumstances, but it would have to be saved for another occasion.

The excitement over, Barbara returned to her book. There was there another kind of excitement. Unlike most works by famous authors, it had female characters with whom Barbara could identify, but who also did things she wouldn't dream of doing. For some pages she had been reading about the sort of woman she might like to be, proud, attractive, and highly accomplished. The character might not have had humor and warmth, but those were qualities about which Barbara had doubts. She herself did have a sense of humor, but thought it might be a good thing to suspend it at times. Whether she had warmth, Barbara didn't know. She was sure that her mother had far too much. The character in the book was clearly more like Barbara than her mother, and the former read on avidly.

The woman arrived in a large European city, and went straight to a great hotel. Showing contempt for everyone and everything, she was shown to her room by a middle-aged bellboy. When he followed her instructions with the luggage, she rounded on him angrily, saying,

"You fool, you've put it in the wrong place. Move it here instantly."

She then gave him instructions for adjusting the drapes, again in the most insulting way. While he frantically tried to satisfy her, she casually took off her dress. When he looked at her, she said,

"You insolent gutter-snipe, how dare you look at me."

As she gave him further orders, she continued to undress and walk around in front of him. When she was almost naked, he finally touched her. She called him a pig, but made no effort to resist. As they moved to the bed, she explained,

"I'm a superior woman, educated, intelligent, and possessed of a taste you couldn't even comprehend. You're an inferior man, useless for anything but the most menial work, small, stupid, and ugly."

Barbara stopped reading right there, and took up pen and paper. It was her practice to stop in the middle of an interesting episode and try to finish it herself. She made a few notes and started writing. After having filled a page, she gave it up in dissatisfaction. The scene wasn't a masochistic one, as she had first thought. The woman wouldn't be beaten or injured in any way. On the contrary, she would use the man in such a way as to maximize her own sexual satisfaction. While, in a certain sense, she was degrading herself, she was maintaining strict control over the man and the situation generally.

The woman in the novel soon gave way to cries of passion and pleasure, but, in between them, she continued to vilify and scorn the bellboy. When she was finally satisfied, she kicked him off, pushed him out the door, and threatened to have him fired.

It was clear to Barbara that this episode, not only took Role A to its logical extreme, but added interesting elements of danger and vulnerability. The whole thing was something that a highly sophisticated woman might perfect. It would take someone who could let herself be placed in the most undignified positions, and yet still maintain a psychological superiority over those who supposedly had the advantage. She jotted down in her notebook,

"The empress has no clothes. Contrary to the old adage, people will notice. But, if she's the right kind of empress, they won't admit to each other, perhaps not even to themselves, that they have noticed."

This, then, was the basis for Role C. It could be taken well beyond both A and B.

Realizing that dinner time was fast approaching, Barbara quickly got ready, dressing up her uniform with a silver pin and necklace. She then completed her outfit with little dark blue shoes with higher heels than she wore during the day. She had been told to stay in her room until further notice, but they surely didn't mean her to miss dinner. As she was about to go out the door, she noticed an envelope that had been slid under it, addressed to her. It was from Sister Mary Joseph and said that she would be permitted to come to dinner. It also said that her punishment would be determined later.

As Barbara went through the downstairs lounge, the phone was ringing, and she answered it. It turned out to be Doctor Winton's cousin, Howie Slattery. She recognized immediately the anxiety so characteristic of the inexperienced young man when he calls a girl for a first date. She quickly got him past that stage, and they went on to have quite a pleasant conversation. When, at last, he asked about meeting, Barbara replied,

"I'd like to, but I'll have to wait a little. I'm in a certain amount of trouble here, and I doubt whether they'll let me see anyone for a bit."

Howie had heard about the trouble, and they discussed Margaret's defection for a while. When she finally hung up, Barbara was pleased. Howie sounded rather intellectual, and he might not expand her sexual experience much, but, still, he was interesting and engaging. Just as she was about to set out for the second time, it occurred to Barbara to make another call, this one to her parents.

By coincidence, Margaret had just called her mother, and had given a somewhat confusing account of what had happened. Barbara's mother had just been telling her husband about it, and they had been on the point of calling the school. Barbara straightened out the details, and then asked to speak to her father.

Bob Bowen was a man of great vigor and many enthusiasms, some of which passed rather quickly. The one that had prompted his return to the religion of his youth had now passed its peak, and, although still present, was headed down. The crisis came when he discovered how badly the church invested its money. How, he wondered, could the Pope really be infallible if he allowed his agents to continually mistake trends in the rate of interest, the stock market, and international finance generally? Perhaps he also made mistakes about other things.

Concerning Margaret's defection, Mr. Bowen expressed scepticism about people who lost control of their employees, and hence, their whole operation. He was even more concerned that his daughter might be blamed for something that wasn't her fault. He indicated to Barbara some regret over his hasty decision to send his children to Catholic schools.

"Billy is already back in his old school. If you want, you can come home and finish the year at New Trier."

Barbara was strongly tempted. However, she knew that trying to catch up with her class would be a killing proposition in a school where it was hard enough just to keep up. The present situation also had some interesting possibilities. She replied,

"Before I decide, Dad, just tell me one thing. You were going to give the school a big chunk of money. Have you done it yet?"

"No, we told them we intended to give them a substantial sum, but we didn't actually promise it. I thought I'd wait to see how things went."

"Well, in that case, I can manage here. Just make sure you don't give them anything without checking with me first, ok?"

Bob Bowen was delighted. It was second nature to him to use large sums of money to open and close doors, to threaten, and to motivate. He had never actually taken out a contract on anyone, nor had he ever, personally, offered a bribe in so many words. Still, he had come extremely close to it, and there were men in his employ who did it as a matter of course. Mrs. Bowen had never properly appreciated the uses of money, but he could see that Barbara already understood. Nothing that she could have learned at St. Monica's would have pleased him more. He replied happily,

"The sum we mentioned to them was a quarter million. Is that enough to have an effect there?"

"It would probably buy the school. You don't have to give nearly that much."

"Well, you know how it works. It doesn't make a great deal of difference."

Barbara did know how it worked. Her father had long since explained to her the principles of charity. Someone in his position had to seem to be something of a philanthropist. This, despite all the tax advantages, did involve some real money. It was a tiny percentage of the gross, but Bob Bowen believed that it was possible to get value for every dollar, even charitable ones. He therefore concentrated his gifts into large lump sums, and told all the recipients that he never gave twice to the same charity or institution. That policy kept them from pestering him afterwards. More important, it created, over the years, a long list of institutions which felt undying and public gratitude. Indeed, there were named buildings and plaques proclaiming it all over the country.

Mr. Bowen kept that list current and showed it to anyone who wondered about the social conscience of a man whose enterprises were so varied. St. Monica's name could easily grace the list. On the other hand, no one would miss it if it weren't there. The quarter million, as far as he was concerned, was already marked for charity and might as well have been Monopoly money. On the other hand, it could provide good experience for his daughter.

The meal was almost half over when Barbara arrived. There was, not a silence, but a noticeable change in the volume and tone of the sound. She knew that they were all talking about her, probably because they thought she was in trouble. As she crossed the room, Barbara tried to walk quickly, but lightly, her shoes hardly tapping the floor and her legs not moving enough to disturb the full skirt of her uniform. She then mounted the two steps to the high tables with no more than a rapid deft movement of her feet.

At the table headed by Sister Mary Joseph there was one chair vacant near the other end. Barbara apologized for being late, saying that she had been on the telephone. There was nothing more than a nod from the head of the table. It as much as said that a certain person's hash would be settled later. Barbara smiled at the girl next to her and began a conversation, much as if she were angling to be invited for a cup of tea in the lounge afterwards. The other girl was obviously embarrassed at having to talk with her at all. It looked as if she thought, from Barbara's manner, that Barbara didn't know what might be in store for her. The girl was basically friendly, perhaps wanting to warn her, but also seemed afraid to bring up the subject. Barbara chattered gaily on, drawing others in. Later, in the lounge, the others were even more willing than usual to pay for her tea and cookies.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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