Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 10

The Hunsletts

Saturdays were always slow at St. Monica's, but they were good for reading. Barbara was in the lounge of her house, curled up on a couch with Julius Caesar, while the first fire of the year sputtered doubtfully in the fireplace. When she was called to the phone, she thought it might be Margaret, and so it turned out to be. Margaret sounded much as before, but calmer than Barbara would have expected. Things were going well, she said. She was staying with her brother, and, through some teachers that he knew, had already discovered that there was a shortage in her area. She would go around and apply on Monday. Margaret also wanted to know what had happened at the school, and Barbara told her, playing down her own difficulties. Margaret was still concerned, but Barbara replied,

"My father said I can come home if I want, and I will if I don't like the way things are going here. If so, I'll see you before Thanksgiving."

Finally, Margaret, not wanting to run up her brother's phone bill, signed off. Barbara returned to Caesar. She had hardly gotten back into the situation in Gaul before she received another message, this time in an envelope carried by one of the younger girls. Barbara suspected that it was from Sister Mary Joseph. Having conferred with Sister Rose by telephone, she would now be in a position to set the terms of Barbara's punishment for her role in the affair Margaret. As the messenger scampered off, her pony tail flying, Barbara opened the envelope. The note said nothing about Sister Rose, but did say that she should present herself to be disciplined in the lounge of her house immediately following dinner. Barbara laughed the laugh of one who controls a quarter of a million dollars. No switches would be put to her bottom. On the contrary, she could imagine a few ways of making life difficult for Sister Mary Joseph.

Barbara hardly gave the matter a thought until the other girls drifted in, and it was time to get ready for dinner. When she went upstairs, she intentionally left the note lying on the couch. It would be interesting to see how fast the news spread.

Since they didn't wear uniforms on Saturday night, there were choices to be made. Barbara finally settled on a light wool dress in red and gold with little gold high-heeled shoes. It was a rather more delicate and formal costume than she usually wore at the school, but she wanted to create a certain effect.

As on the previous evening, Barbara was a marked girl. However, as the most elaborate meal of the week unfolded, she gave the appearance of being, and indeed was, in the best of spirits. She was charming even to Sister Mary Joseph, only two seats away, and joked with the others about her call from Dr. Winton's cousin. She could tell, by the dessert, that the others didn't really think that she was going to be on the receiving end of St. Monica's special ritual punishment. Probably only a few had actually seen the note, and they must have put it down to a misunderstanding. Indeed, on the walk back to the house, as they skittered around a corner in what looked like an approaching storm, one of the other seniors asked Barbara about the note.

"Are they really going to paddle you?"

She answered,

"Oh no. That's for the little girls. We're treated as young ladies. But Sister Mary Joseph is upset about Sister Margaret. There'll be a boring lecture, and I may lose some privileges. I hope I'll still be able to have Howie over soon."

That had pretty much settled it. The girls daintily ascended the steps in their precarious shoes, went to fix their wind- blown hair, and then settled down for after-dinner tea. Barbara was in an easy chair in one grouping near a window, her powerful but slim legs elegantly crossed, when she heard a peculiar scraping noise outside. She remarked on it to the girls with her. One of them replied,

"That's probably the Hunslett twins, they're always peeking in the windows."

The Hunsletts were neighboring farmers. Among their many children there were twin boys, about fifteen, who were retarded. They did odd jobs around the school, and the girls sometimes gave them cookies and pieces of cake from the tea room. The boys, one large and blond and the other small and dark, were pleasant and helpful. They were universally regarded as harmless, and even Sister Mary Joseph smiled at them as they passed, always together. Barbara now replied,

"I didn't know they did that."

"All they can see here is the lounge. In some of the other houses they might occasionally see someone in her slip or nightgown. We don't tell the sisters. They'd go crazy and cause trouble."

Barbara nodded,

"I've talked with them. They do seem like nice boys."

There was a crash outside the window, obviously the result of someone slipping and falling to the ground. There was then some furious whispering that was clearly audible inside the room. The other girls laughed, and one said,

"It's a good thing they do their Peeping Tom thing at the school here. If they did it anywhere else, they'd get caught and put in jail."

The conversation then dwindled somewhat, and Barbara took that opportunity to make her final plans. She knew that her nemesis was serious, but that she herself held the trump card. Barbara could have gone quietly to Sister Mary Joseph, before she reached the house, or even intercepted her on the way. But it wasn't for nothing that she had conceived Role C the day before. She was going to let things go as far as they could, short of being whipped. She would allow herself to be put thoroughly on the spot, but without loss of dignity or control. And then, at the critical moment, she would speak quietly of money. Ideally, no one but Sister Mary Joseph would hear her. She did not, after all, wish to be known as the spoiled rich girl. Proceedings would then simply stop, and no one would ever know why.

Sister Mary Joseph came through the wide doorway precisely as the storm broke with wind and rain. It was too bad that it was too late in the year for her to be back-lit by lightning. Even so, the bright porch light revealed her oddly shaped and twisted figure, entirely in black, as clearly as anyone might have wished. Why, Barbara wondered, did they dress nuns so as to make them look like special envoys from Satan?

The visitor made an impression on everyone present. They were used to her, but her expression, on this occasion, was so much that of an avenging fury that everyone stopped talking. Barbara, alone undaunted, thought that the whole thing promised to be wonderful theater.

There was an open area in the lounge near the front door. Sister Mary Joseph stopped in the middle of it. She called out in a great hoarse voice,

"Miss Bowen."

Barbara bounced up brightly and threaded her way through the chairs, couches and tables. She felt like a character in a movie she had seen, a medieval knight who undertook to play chess with the devil. Accordingly, she adopted the manner of a society hostess, smiling graciously to welcome the Sister to their house. Before Barbara could say anything, the other said abruptly,

"Miss Bowen, please remove your dress."

The society hostess would have had difficulty with that one. Barbara was tempted to revert to her own character and whisper a few words to the sister which would set things straight. But that was not yet Role C. Instead, she began to unfasten her dress.

Barbara went slowly so as to magnify the suspense, and she still felt elegant in her expensive and elaborate slip as she was conducted to a couch. When she had almost reached the others, Barbara turned and spoke to Sister Mary Joseph, still adopting the tone of a hostess who has come upon a guest she doesn't recognize, and who might turn out to be a gate- crasher. For the moment, Mary Joseph was no longer an emissary from Satan, but an unlovely person dressed in the most regrettable taste. Barbara merely tossed off the words,

"I find it difficult, Sister, to follow whatever reasoning you may have engaged in."

Sister Mary Joseph was a big woman almost as tall as Barbara. Dressed with so much more fabric, she occupied a total volume many times greater. The Sister began to say something, but was evidently unable to get it out without choking. She instead pointed to the back of the couch. Barbara, sauntering in that direction, was now in the middle of the other girls. They all stood stock still without even a murmur. Their expressions were those of extreme fascination mixed with fear.

The only noise in the room was the tap and scrape of Barbara's heels. She, for her part, tried to look, not only composed, but distinguished. She was, she thought, doing much better than had Joanna Porter at a similar stage. Thinking of which, she suddenly noticed that young lady on a couch with two other juniors. Had they snuck in? Then Barbara remembered. This was one of the times when juniors were allowed to take tea with the seniors, although they seldom did. This, obviously, was a special occasion. Barbara didn't catch Joanna's eye. She knew what she would see there.

When Barbara reached the couch and stood, nothing happened at all for several minutes. At length, Barbara turned her head and saw that Sister Mary Joseph was conferring in whispers with two other girls. She seemed to be demanding something from them which they, obviously reluctant, were in no position to refuse. Barbara, uncomfortable to be left standing, glanced over to the window where she knew the Hunsletts were watching. She liked them, and had often given them little things. She could hardly imagine what they thought and felt now.

The next thing Barbara knew, Sister Mary Joseph was behind her, speaking to the assembled girls in a tone calmer and more reasonable than Barbara would have imagined. She said,

"We're all very uncomfortable about this, myself as much as anyone. Barbara is an admirable person in a great many ways, but she has fallen into arrogance. It could happen to any of us. Unfortunately, it's not easily cured. No amount of talk does any good. It takes a really painful and unpleasant experience to make any difference. There also has to be a certain amount of public humiliation. You may not realize it, but we sisters are often called on to humiliate ourselves when we fall into the ways of pride."

She then addressed Barbara in particular.

"I, too, have been at fault, Barbara. I have given way to anger, and to improper feelings. I should have reacted better. However, there really is arrogance in you, and we must rid you of it. I ask you to cooperate in your punishment and accept it for what it is, an unpleasant necessity. Do you think you can do that?"

Barbara found herself becoming furious. She was not only to be punished, but made to ask for her own punishment. How very Catholic! She should have known. Having difficulty in speaking at all, she managed to get out,

"If you touch me, you'll never get any money from my father."

It wasn't at all the disdainful and debonair tone Barbara had intended. Only a few minutes before, she had imagined herself bent over the couch, her bottom exposed, as she casually played her trump card. Far from feeling herself infinitely superior, as specified in Role C, she now shivered as she faced the great black-clad nun. The other replied softly,

"That has nothing to do with it. I'm afraid that's just another instance of your arrogance, dear."

The Hunslett boys, while largely unsupervised and wild in the sense of being untamed, were not, as some people might have imagined, motivated primarily by lust. They associated sex with the activities of the animals in the barnyard.

Recently, Herbert, the small dark twin and the leader of the two, had found a woman. She was a middle-aged cook at a large nearby farm, and was willing now and then. Howard, too, had taken his turn. These experiences made no lasting impression on either boy, and neither had been observed by the nuns to do anything that gave them any cause for worry.

The boys hung around the school because they were treated well, never jeered at, and were given jobs that they could do. One of these jobs was cutting firewood for the many fireplaces, and then distributing it around the houses. The girls had also discovered that the boys could take money, bicycle to Bollinger, buy what was needed, and return. If the purchase was at all complex, they would be given a note for the store, but Herbert could most often manage without one. The boys were paid generously and liked the girls, generally exchanging greetings and a few words with them.

The boys understood perfectly well that they weren't allowed to touch the girls. The nuns, for their part, seemed to think that their toleration of the Hunsletts was a small instance of the sort of concern for the less fortunate that they hoped to cultivate in the students. They would, of course, have quickly decided otherwise if they had known that the boys peeked in the windows.

Even that was, in fact, less sexual than it would have been with ordinary boys. The Hunsletts did sometimes see some half-dressed girls, at which point they exclaimed to each other suitably, but there was another strong motive. They had little experience, and they wanted to see how other kinds of people lived.

The Hunsletts had immediately noticed Barbara when she arrived that fall. She was also more willing to talk with them than anyone else, even Sister Rose. They also sensed, probably more quickly than most other boys would have, that Barbara was entirely different from the other girls. Part of it was, no doubt, her height. But it was also a matter of carriage and attitude. In their notion of things, derived largely from stories read to them by a younger sister, Sister Rose was the queen of the school. Barbara was the princess.

The seniors' house, Hardcastle Hall, was constructed in such a way that it was impossible for the boys to reach the upper windows. However, the tea lounge here, and the behavior of the girls in it, was entirely unlike anything they had seen anywhere else.

An impartial observer might have said that it was more civilized than anything else they had seen. They thought of it, not in quite those terms, but as something strange and rather wonderful. They liked the way in which the girls sat and held their cups, and the movements of their heads and hands as they talked to one another.

On this evening, sheltered from the rain by the eaves, the Hunsletts were amazed at what they had seen so far. Howard had started jabbering when it was obvious that Barbara was in trouble. But, then, both boys noticed that, while she seemed much the same, something had come over all the other girls, probably because of Big Black. And now, with Barbara bent over the couch and held in that position by two other girls, there was no mistaking what was going to happen.

The punishment was of a sort the boys had often been subjected to themselves, at least when younger. It would not, under other circumstances, have alarmed them. However, this was the place where such things didn't happen, in which they couldn't imagine any sort of brutality. It had to be stopped, and Howard started to force the window open. Herbert, more confused than he had ever been, did nothing.

As it turned out, there weren't many blows. Barbara ended up on the couch itself, sobbing violently with her knees drawn up and one hand on her bottom. Howard had gotten the window part-way open, and Herbert, fully prepared to help him rescue Barbara, had one foot up on the sill. Then, when he saw that the whipping had ended, he restrained his brother. Together, they quietly closed the window without anyone's noticing.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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