Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 11

Joining the Faculty

Sister Rose returned late Sunday afternoon. Sister Mary Joseph hadn't been able to reach her over the weekend, and her homecoming was not a pleasant one. The note from Sister Margaret explained virtually nothing, except that she had left of her own free will. It would have to be reported to the Order, and the chances of getting a replacement for the rest of the school year were virtually nil.

Sister Rose was even more concerned about Barbara Bowen. The story was confused. She had been with Margaret when she left, and Mary Joseph believed that she had encouraged her to leave. Sister Rose, knowing what was happening with young nuns, doubted that Margaret had needed much encouragement. In any case, to have whipped Barbara was a disastrous mistake. Poor Mary Joseph. If mocked or challenged, she became nearly desperate in a way that masked her hysteria. Apparently Barbara had made some threat about the money. Mary Joseph had said that it couldn't possibly be true. In any case, she had no real comprehension of sums greater than a hundred dollars.

There was no point in blaming Mary Joseph. She would, in any case, be shattered when it finally dawned on her what she had done. The only thing was to try to limit the damage. The obvious first step was to talk with Barbara. But Sister Rose's intuition told her otherwise. Knowing that she had little to lose, she placed a call to Barbara's home.

The telephone number was probably a closely guarded secret, but the principal of a school does have the right to call a girl's father, whoever he happens to be. Sister Rose had expected a servant to answer, and was rather surprised to hear a jolly gruff voice, undoubtedly that of the man himself. She knew that such a man would have no patience with people who wasted his time, and she therefore came right to the point.

"I'm sorry to say that, while I was away, Barbara was punished for something that wasn't her fault. I can set that to rights, but I'm naturally concerned that you might cancel your very generous gift to us without giving me a chance to explain."

Mr. Bowen seemed amused. Barbara had called him, and had seemed somewhat concerned. But he thought she was old enough to manage on her own. Indeed, all she had wanted was veto power on the gift.

"You didn't give it to her, did you, Mr. Bowen?"

"Sure. She should be learning to manage money about now."

"I do believe that she's a remarkable girl. But she's only seventeen. You can't give someone that age control over a quarter million dollars."

"I can do anything I want."

"Yes. I see. Well, I appreciate your talking with me and telling me how things stand. I'll be seeing Barbara shortly."

As Sister Rose hung up, she swore briefly.

Barbara, in jeans and a sweatshirt, proceeded somewhat warily to meet Sister Rose at the otherwise unoccupied faculty lounge. She was sure that she'd have to keep her guard up, much better than she had the last time. On the other hand, the prospect of matching wits with Sister Rose had its own excitement.

Barbara declined to sit, saying that she couldn't yet do so comfortably. This wasn't strictly true, but it gave her, she thought, a psychological advantage. Sister Rose apologized for what had happened and said that it wouldn't have occurred if she had been present. That was easy enough to believe, and Barbara acknowledged it. The other then began to talk.

"You know, there really was a misunderstanding. Sister Mary Joseph assumed that you were a Catholic. You really aren't, are you?"

"No. It seems to me just an accident that I was born into a Christian culture instead of, say, a Hindu or animist one. If I had to choose some one religion, I'd probably go for some form of Buddhism."

"Yes. Well, you see, for a Catholic, it would have seemed terribly important that Sister Margaret not leave in the way she did. It would have been something like trying to save a person from drowning. I know her leaving wasn't your idea, but I don't imagine that you tried to dissuade her."

"No. I felt as if I were helping a prisoner escape. I lent her money and helped her get clothes."

"Do you feel like a prisoner here, Barbara?"

"I didn't until last night. But I'm free to leave in a way Margaret wasn't, or didn't think she was."

"From the fact that you took a taxi over to Orrville today without permission, I assume that you're thinking strongly of leaving yourself."

"Sure. I'm not the sort of person who enjoys being whipped. And, as you point out, I'm not a Catholic. Why stay around?"

Sister Rose gestured with her hands open.

"Of course, in addition to losing you, which is, I may say, a very real loss to me, I was concerned about the gift your father was going to make to the school. I called him an hour ago. I think I may have overestimated my powers of persuasion. Perhaps I could have done better in person. Anyway, I think I had some idea of out-flanking you with respect to your father. I did tell him that he couldn't put a seventeen year old girl, no matter how accomplished, in charge of a quarter million dollars. He told me, quite pleasantly, that he could do anything he wanted."

Barbara had trouble suppressing a smile.

"That's daddy all right."

"It was something of a jolt for me. I've met powerful people, but, even in a supposedly autocratic organization, I've never confronted such pure naked power before. It must be odd to grow up around someone who doesn't have to answer to anyone at all."

"I suppose I also assume that I'll be able eventually to decide my own fate without permission from anyone else."

Sister Rose replied,

"From what I gather, you're close to being in that position right now. But Barbara, there's one thing that puzzles me. You and I know about the money, but you must have guessed that Sister Mary Joseph had no real idea of it. If you had gone to her quietly and explained, she wouldn't have acted without consulting me."

"I did tell her. In as plain terms as anyone could want."

"The impression I have is that you were already bent over the couch, and that other girls were present. Those were not the most promising circumstances."

Barbara said nothing, and the other went on,

"The situation must have been extremely tense, and it's not so surprising that Sister Mary Joseph didn't believe you. She really belongs to a European tradition. She was the good peasant girl who was virtually given to the church by her family, and who has had little worldly experience. The actual situation in this case is almost beyond her comprehension. But, still, it would have been better if you hadn't left it for the very last minute. Why did you do that, Barbara?"

Barbara found herself sitting down in a soft easy chair. She had known it would come to this. But, anyway, she had nothing to lose. She explained at some length her experimental adoption of Role C. Sister Rose didn't seem shocked. A couple of times, she gave an amused little smile. When Barbara finished, the other replied,

"I'll never forget you, Barbara. But, as you've been so frank, perhaps you wouldn't mind if I made a few comments."

Barbara, feeling better about the whole episode, laughed.

"No. Go ahead."

"First, you were correct in thinking that what you tried to do was of the same general sort as the episode in the book. No doubt, it seemed safer to you, and that's also true. Things went wrong, but I notice that you're now sitting. Just for fun, let's imagine some other similar things that you might do when you go back to Chicago."

Barbara, hesitating, was about to speak when Sister Rose beat her to it.

"Suppose you pick out some large, relatively poor, drug or variety store, one where they're particularly concerned about theft. You could go in as your usual elegant self and attract some attention. You could then contrive to make them think that you were stealing some cheap jewelry. You wouldn't, of course, you'd only move it from one place to another. Then, when you left the store, you'd be arrested. They must have some place where they take people and search them in such a case. It would probably be a storage area in the basement. On the way there you could protest your innocence. Like Sister Mary Joseph, they wouldn't believe you. You might even tell them who your father is. I doubt that that would make any difference either, but, if they let you go on the strength of it, you could try another store. You would be very indignant when they took your dress to go over it with a fine tooth comb. With any luck, the stock boys would be peeking at you from around corners, and you could complain about that, too. Even naked, you might well manage a certain poise as you threatened to sue them for false arrest. Would that count as Role C?"

Barbara was now quite embarrassed, and felt herself blushing. She could only nod.

"And here's another one, also, I suppose, relatively safe. The next time you go abroad with your parents, you could drop an anonymous line to the United States Customs Service. It would name your party and indicate that persons in that party would be attempting to smuggle drugs into the country. This time, I imagine, they'd be more professional, and also more thorough. One reads that, in such cases, the woman is stripped naked and required to submit to an examination of all her bodily orifices. If, as you say, your aim is to maintain dignity under humiliating circumstances, this might be quite a test. I don't think you could plausibly threaten to sue them, but you could again give vent to your indignation. What's more, they'd do the same thing to your parents. Your father's money might not do him much good. I don't know how you'd feel about that. They might not like Role C. I'm not suggesting that you actually do that, mind. That would be my playing Barbara to your Sister Margaret. But it would be quite a thrill wouldn't it?"

When Barbara again said nothing, Sister Rose patted her on the hand.

"I'm not trying to embarrass you for no purpose, dear. Let's now move up to a literary plane. As you can see, one could go on and on inventing things of this sort. Thinking dispassionately now, how would they compare with the one in the book?"

Barbara, now more comfortable, replied,

"These aren't as extreme. They're still dangerous, because you couldn't be sure that a store detective or customs agent wouldn't plant something on you. But, when a strange man is encouraged, as in the book, you wouldn't know what he might do. The woman is relying entirely on a psychological advantage."

"Agreed. Would these alternatives I've suggested be as exciting?"

"I suppose that the more dangerous thing is always the more exciting."

"What you did was really just a game. An experiment. But suppose it had worked. Wouldn't you have felt good about it?"

"In a way, but I might not have. I am capable of reflection, and I might have decided that it wasn't a good thing. Besides, Sister, I see where you're heading. I would have gone on to do the other things, and would have wound up with a bellboy in a hotel bedroom."

"I don't think you'd do that, even though none of us really know what we might do in certain circumstances. However, if you got well started in that direction, there's the danger that you might marry an inferior man so that you could play Role C with him. That would be worse than the bell boy!"

Barbara laughed, threw up her hands, and stated the implicit conclusion.

"So Sister Mary Joseph did well to practically beat the stuffings out of me? I do admit that I'm through with Role C. But I'm still angry. She had no right to do it, and, even if she did save me from Role C, she knew nothing about it."

"Don't be so sure. She's not terribly intelligent in one sense of the term, but her intuitions aren't usually too far off. She knew you were up to something. And, besides, you were making use of a less intelligent person for your own ends. That's not so nice, either. People know it when they're being used, even if they don't know how it's being done."

"Well, I'm sure my father does that all the time. I don't want to be like him in all respects, but there's a great deal that I do admire in him. Most people would say that my mother is a much nicer person. But, if it weren't for him, everyone in the world would take advantage of her."

"I must say that I found your mother delightful when she brought you down here. Being taken advantage of isn't the worst thing in the world, particiularly if you're wealthy enough to be able to afford it."

"Yeah, but there's something else. Nothing that she undertakes ever quite works out. Daddy may not be the world's greatest altruist, but his plans work. And, as he says, innocent bystanders don't get hurt."

Sister Rose smiled,

"As ethics of our time go, that's not so bad. Anyway, I have something else to propose to you."

"Well, we've done the dime store and the customs service, and I dare say I've exhausted Sister Mary Joseph. I expected you to suggest that, if I didn't read books like that, I wouldn't have these sorts of problems."

"That may be true, but it would be pointless to suggest it in your case. I had in mind something easier. How about taking Sister Margaret's place on our staff?"

Nothing in the interview had shocked Barbara as much as this. She could manage no coherent response at all. Sister Rose elaborated.

"She was teaching elementary math and science, and I'm quite sure that you know far more than she did. There's nothing to keep us from taking on a substitute without a college degree. You could continue in Latin with Mrs. Hanrahan, and we'd give you course credits and a diploma. When you apply to college, I'd write the letters, and I can write very good ones. All the details could be worked out."

Finally, Barbara found voice.

"I suppose there is a certain justice in it. I helped Margaret defect, so it's up to me to replace her. She was worried about her classes, too. I think she'll be relieved when I tell her."

"She also drove the car, and you can do that, too. The only other thing would be to take over her function as nurse."

At that, Barbara practically exploded,

"This is getting ridiculous, Sister! I don't know the first thing about nursing."

"You don't know what goes on behind the scenes at private schools, dear. And not just Catholic ones. All the nurse does is put ice on bruises, take temperatures, dole out aspirin, and bind up cuts. Anything else, and you call the doctor. Sister Margaret had no nursing training either."

"I sometimes wonder, Sister, if there's anything in the world that you couldn't talk me into doing. But I would rather bandage people than whip them. I take it that I will no longer whip or be whipped?"

"Yes. I can assure you of that. It will quickly occur to you that I hope your work as a teacher will lead you to give us at least some of what now seems to be your money. We'll also pay you as a lay teacher. It'll be a pittance, but it'll be your money in a somewhat different sense. Will it be the first that you've ever earned?"

Sister Rose said this with a smile, and was rewarded with a shy acknowledgement.

When the interview ended, Barbara went frantically to Margaret's room. She would pack up her things later, but she was now interested only in the textbooks from which she would be teaching the next morning. They were lying on the desk, together with a good deal of uncorrected homework. It calmed her nerves to go through it, finding and marking the mistakes. It was only elementary algebra, and nothing there would cause her the slightest problem.

The other course was one in elementary general science. Barbara was more concerned about that. The material was again no problem, but she couldn't imagine herself performing, in front of the class, the elegant experiments that had worked so beautifully at New Trier, except for the gifted Mr. Nash. As she looked through Margaret's materials, she began to suspect that Margaret had hardly performed any experiments at all. That simplified things, and gave her an easy act to follow. Later, she would see if she couldn't at least blow some hydrogen bubbles and light them.

Walking back to her room, Barbara considered some other matters. Her problems would be more social than narrowly pedagogical. Sister Rose was capable of extraordinary feats of agility, and Mrs. Hanrahan, whom she had visited in Orrville that day, would be pleased and amused. However, the other girls would be astonished. They would probably not be amused. Many wouldn't be pleased at all, most especially Joanna Porter.

Although Sister Rose had told her that, subject to her parents' approval, she could make her own rules, Barbara decided to continue to wear her uniform, and to make a point of obeying all the rules for seniors. That would disarm a good deal of hostility. Of course, there would be titters among the freshmen and sophomores in her classes when they realized that the girl who had set the record for public humiliation at St. Monica's was their new teacher. She would allow it for a short time, and let them have their laugh. Once they had had it, they would have to settle down. Otherwise, she would paddle a few bottoms herself!

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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