Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

10

No one can do that, they said; but it was just possible that she, Lucy, might. When the door closed behind Wragg she found herself faced with her own dilemma. She had reason to know that Miss Lux’s first view of Henrietta’s reaction was much truer than her second. That mental astigmatism that Lux talked about was not great enough to exclude a doubt of her own judgment; Lucy had not forgotten the odd guilty look on Henrietta’s face last Monday morning when her secretary had tried to bring up the subject of the Arlinghurst letter. It had been an up-to-some-thing look. Not a Father Christmas up-to-something, either. Quite definitely it was something she was a little ashamed of. Astigmatic enough she might be to find Rouse worthy, but not cock-eyed enough to be unaware that Innes had a prior claim.

And that being so, then it was Lucy’s duty to put certain facts before her. It was a great pity about the little red book now dissolving into pulp among the weeds — she had been altogether too impulsive about its disposal — but book or no book, she must brave Henrietta and produce some cogent reasons for her belief that Rouse was not a suitable person to be appointed to Arlinghurst.

It surprised her a little to find that an interview with Henrietta on this footing brought back a school-girl qualm that had no place in the bosom of any adult; least of all one who was a Celebrity. But she was greatly fortified by that remark of Henrietta’s about “pretty faces.” That was a remark that Henrietta really should not have made.

She got up and put the cup of black, cold tea on the tray; noticing regretfully that they had had almond-fingers for tea; she would have very much liked an almond-finger ten minutes ago, but now she could not have eaten even an éclair. It would not be true to say that she had discovered feet of clay in Henrietta, since she had never made any sort of image in Henrietta’s likeness. But she had looked up to Henrietta as a person of superior worth to her own, and the habit of mind acquired at school had stayed with her. She was therefore shocked to find her capable of what was at worst cheating, and at the very least a bêtise. She wondered what there had been in Rouse to unseat so solid a judgment as Henrietta’s. That remark about “pretty faces.” That unconsidered, blurted remark. Was there something in that plain, North–Country face that had touched a woman so used to good looks in her students? Was there something in the plain, unloved, hardworking, ambitious Rouse that Henrietta identified with herself? Was it like seeing some old struggle of her own? So that she adopted, and championed, and watched over her unconsciously. Her disappointment over Rouse’s comparative failure in Pathology had been so keen that it had distracted her even from the urgent quarrel with her Staff.

Or was it just that Rouse had made good use of those admiring — not to say adoring — looks that she had sampled on the covered way the other morning?

No, not that. Henrietta had her faults but silliness was not one of them. She had, moreover, like everyone else in the scholastic world, served a long apprenticeship to adoration, both real and synthetic. Her interest in Rouse might be heightened by Rouse’s obvious discipleship, but the origin of that interest was elsewhere. It was most likely that the Henrietta who had been plain, and unloved, and ambitious, had viewed the plain, and unloved, and ambitious young Rouse with a kindliness that was half recognition.

Lucy wondered whether to go to Henrietta at once, or to wait until she simmered down. The snag was that as Henrietta simmered down, so would her own determination to beard Henrietta on the subject. All things considered, and with the memory of previous fiascos, she thought that she had better go now while her feet would still carry her in the proper direction.

There was no immediate answer to her tap at the office door, and for a moment she hoped that Henrietta had retired to her own room upstairs and so reprieved her from her plain duty for a few hours longer. But no; there was her voice bidding her come in, and in went Lucy, feeling horribly like a culprit and furious with herself for being such a rabbit. Henrietta was still flushed and wounded-looking, and if she had not been Henrietta, Lucy would have said that there were tears in her eyes; but that was manifestly impossible. She was very busy about some papers on her desk, but Lucy felt that until she had knocked Henrietta’s only activity had been mental.

“Henrietta,” she began, “I’m afraid you thought it presumptuous of me to express an opinion about Miss Rouse.” (Oh dear, that sounded very pompous!)

“A little uncalled-for,” Henrietta said coldly.

Of all the Henrietta phrases! “Uncalled-for!” “But it was called for,” she pointed out. “That is just what it was. I should never have dreamed of offering my opinion unasked. The point is, that opinion —”

“I don’t think we need discuss it, Lucy. It is a small matter, anyhow, and not one to —”

“But it isn’t a small matter. That is why I’ve come to see you.”

“We pride ourselves in this country, don’t we, that everyone has a right to his opinion, and a right to express it. Well, you expressed it —”

“When I was asked to.”

“When you were asked to. And all I say is that it was a little tactless of you to take sides in a matter of which you can know very little, if anything at all.”

“But that is just it. I do know something about it. You think I am just prejudiced against Miss Rouse because she is not very attractive ——”

“Not very attractive to you, perhaps,” amended Henrietta quickly.

“Shall we say not very obviously attractive,” Lucy said, annoyed and beginning to feel better. “You think I have judged her merely on her social graces, but that is not so.”

“On what else could you judge her? You know nothing of her work.”

“I invigilated at one of her examinations.”

Lucy observed with satisfaction that this brought Henrietta up short.

There was silence while one could count five.

“And what quality of a student could you possibly test by invigilating at an examination?”

“Her honesty.”

“Lucy!” But the tone was not shocked. It was a warning. It meant, if it meant anything: Do-you-know-what-the-punishment-for-slander-is?

“Yes, I said her honesty.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you found Miss Rouse — obtaining help during an examination?”

“She did her best. I haven’t spent the best years of my life in Fourth–Form circles without knowing the routine. It was at the beginning that I noticed what she was about, and since I didn’t want to make a scandal of it I thought the best way was to prevent her from using it.”

“Using it? Using what?”

“The little book.”

“You mean that you saw a student using a small book at an examination, and said nothing about it?

“No, of course not. It was only afterwards that I knew about the book. All that I knew at the time was that there was something she was trying to refer to. She had a handkerchief in her left hand — although she hadn’t a cold, and seemed to have no legitimate use for the thing and she had that bag-of-sweets-under-the-desk look that you know as well as I do. There wasn’t anything under her desk, so I deduced that whatever she had was in her hand with the handkerchief. As I had no proof ——”

“Ah! You had no proof.”

“No. I had no proof, and I didn’t want to upset the whole room by demanding any, so I invigilated from the back of the room, where I was directly behind her, and could see to it that she got no help from anything or anybody.”

“But if you did not ask her about the affair, how did you know about a book?”

“I found the book lying by the path to the gymnasium. It was ——”

“You mean the book was not in her desk? Not in the room at all?”

“No. If it had been in her desk you would have known about it five minutes later. And if I had found such a book in the examination room I would have brought it to you at once.”

“Such a book? What kind of book?”

“A tiny address-book filled with Pathology notes.”

“An address-book?”

“Yes. A, arthritis — and so on.”

“You mean that the book was merely a book of reference compiled by a student in the course of her study?”

“Not ‘merely’.”

“And why not ‘merely’?”

“Because the whole thing was not much bigger than an out-size postage stamp.”

Lucy waited for this to sink in.

“And what connection is there between this book you found and Miss Rouse?”

“Only that no one else in the room had a bag-of-sweets-under-the-desk expression; in fact, no one else seemed to be particularly worried about the paper. And that Rouse was the last to leave the room.”

“What has that to do with it?”

“If the book had been dropped before Rouse came out of the examination room it would almost certainly have been picked up by one of the other students. It was a sort of dahlia red, and was lying very obviously on the grass at the edge of the path.

“Not on the path?”

“No,” said Lucy, reluctantly. “About half an inch off it.”

“So that it could have been passed many times by a crowd of chattering students excited over an examination, and anxious not to be late for their next class?”

“Yes, I suppose it could.”

“And was there a name on the book?”

“No.”

“No name? No means of identification?”

“Nothing except the script. It was in script, not current form.”

“I see.” One could see Henrietta bracing herself. “Then you had better bring me the book and we will take the proper steps to have the owner identified.”

“I haven’t got it,” said poor Lucy. “I drowned it.”

“You what?”

“I mean, I dropped it into the stream by the games field.”

“That was surely a very extraordinary thing to do?” Was there a spark of relief in Henrietta’s eye?

“Not really. I suppose it was impetuous. But what was I to do with it? It was a précis of Pathology, and the Pathology Final was over and the book had not been used. Whatever had been planned had not been carried out. Why, then, worry you by bringing the book to you? It seemed to me that the best punishment for whoever had compiled the thing was never to know what had become of it. To live the rest of her days with a question at the back of her mind.”

“‘Whoever had compiled it.’ That describes the situation, doesn’t it? There is not one iota of evidence to connect the book with Miss Rouse.”

“If there had been evidence, as I said before, I would have brought it to you. There is only presumption. But the presumption is very strong. A great many people are ruled out altogether.”

“Why?”

“Those who don’t consider themselves likely to be at a loss don’t waste time insuring against it. That is to say, those who are good on the theoretical side are innocent. But you yourself told me that Rouse finds written work extraordinarily difficult.”

“So do a great many others.”

“Yes. But there is another factor. A great many no doubt find difficulty with theory but don’t particularly care as long as they struggle through. But Rouse is brilliant at practical work, and it galls her to be also-ran in examinations. She is ambitious, and a hard-worker. She wants the fruits of her labours, and she is very doubtful of getting them. Hence the little book.”

“That, my dear Lucy, is psychological theorising.”

“Maybe. But psychological theorising is what Madame asked me to do, in the drawing-room. You thought I had based my opinion on a mere prejudice. I thought you ought to know that I had some better foundation for my theorising.” She watched Henrietta’s flushed face, and wondered if she might venture into the minefield again, now that she had proved that she was not merely wantonly trespassing. “As one friend to another, Henrietta, I don’t understand why you even consider sending Rouse to Arlinghurst when you have someone as suitable as Innes.” And she waited for the explosion.

But there was no explosion. Henrietta sat in heavy silence, making a dotted pattern with her pen on the fine clean blotting-paper; a measure of her troubled state, since neither doodling nor wasting paper was a habit of Henrietta’s.

“I don’t think you know much about Innes,” she said at length, in a reasonably friendly tone. “Because she has a brilliant mind and good looks you credit her with all the other virtues. Virtues that she quite definitely does not possess. She has no sense of humour, and she does not make friends easily — two serious disabilities in anyone who plans to live the communal life of a residential school. Her very brilliance is a drawback in that it makes it difficult for her to suffer fools gladly. She has a tendency — quite unconscious, I am sure — to look down her nose at the rest of the world.” (Lucy remembered suddenly how, this very afternoon, Innes had automatically used the word “they” in referring to the students. Old Henrietta was shrewd enough.)

“In fact, ever since she came here she has left me with the impression that she despises Leys, and is using it only as a means to an end.”

“Oh, surely not,” Lucy protested mechanically, while her inner self was wondering whether that were indeed so, and whether that accounted for a great deal that had puzzled her about Mary Innes. If being at Leys had indeed been a secret purgatory, a trial endured as a means to an end, that might explain that too-adult reticence, that air of concentration in a person who had no natural need of concentration, that inability to smile.

She remembered, irrelevantly, Desterro’s light-hearted account of how she changed her mind and decided to stay at Leys when she saw Innes. It was because Innes was not “of” Leys that Desterro had noticed her on that dreary autumn afternoon, picking her out from the milling crowd as someone from an alien, more adult world.

“But she is very popular with her colleagues,” Lucy said aloud.

“Yes, her own set like her well enough. They find her aloofness — intriguing, I think. She is not so popular with children, unfortunately; they find her intimidating. If you looked at her crit. book — the book that the Staff use for reports when they go to outside classes with students — you would find that the word ‘antagonistic’ appears again and again in describing her attitude.”

“Perhaps it is just those eyebrows,” Lucy said. She saw that Henrietta, uncomprehending, thought this a mere frivolousness, and added: “Or perhaps like so many people she has an inner doubt about herself, in spite of all appearances to the contrary. That is the usual explanation of antagonism as an attitude.”

“I find psychologists’ explanations a little too glib,” Henrietta said. “If one has not the natural graces to attract friendship, one can at least make an effort to be friendly. Miss Rouse does.”

(I bet! thought Lucy.)

“It is a great tragedy to lack the natural graces; one is not only denied the ready friendship of one’s colleagues but one has to overcome the unreasoning prejudice of those in office. Miss Rouse has fought hard to overcome her natural disabilities: her slowness of mind and her lack of good looks; she goes more than halfway to meet people and puts herself to great pains to be adaptable and pleasant and — and — and acceptable to people. And with her pupils she succeeds. They like her and look forward to seeing her; her reports from her classes are excellent. But with the Staff in their private capacity she has failed. They see only her personal — unattractiveness, and her efforts to be friendly and adaptable have merely annoyed them.” She looked up from her pen-patterns and caught Lucy’s expression. “Oh, yes, you thought my preference for Rouse as a candidate was the result of blind prejudice, didn’t you? Believe me, I have not brought up Leys to its present position without understanding something of how the human mind works. Rouse has worked hard during her years here and has made a success of them, she is popular with her pupils and sufficiently adaptable to make herself acceptable to her colleagues; she has the friendliness and the adaptability that Innes so conspicuously lacks; and there is no reason why she should not go to Arlinghurt with my warm recommendation.”

“Except that she is dishonest.”

Henrietta flung the pen down on its tray with a clatter.

“That is a sample of what the unattractive girl has to struggle against,” she said, all righteousness and wrath. “You think that one out of a score of girls has tried to cheat at an examination, and you pick on Rouse. Why? Because you don’t like her face — or her expression, if one must be accurate.”

So it had been no use. Lucy drew her feet under her and prepared to go.

“There is nothing at all to connect the little book you found with any particular student. You just remembered that you hadn’t liked the looks of Miss Rouse; and so she was the culprit. The culprit — if there is one; I should be sorry to think that any Senior student of mine would stoop to such a subterfuge — the culprit is probably the prettiest and most innocent member of the set. You should know enough of human nature, as distinct from psychology, to know that.”

Lucy was not sure whether it was this last thrust or the accusation of fastening crime on to plain faces, but she was very angry by the time she reached the door.

“There is just one point, Henrietta,” she said, pausing with the door-knob in her hand.

“Yes?”

“Rouse managed to get a First in all her Finals so far.”

“Yes.”

“That is odd, isn’t it.”

“Not at all odd. She had worked very hard.”

“It’s odd, all the same; because on the occasion when someone was prevented from using the little red book she could not even get a Second.”

And she closed the door quietly behind her.

“Let her stew over that,” she thought.

As she made her way over to the wing her anger gave way to depression. Henrietta was, as Lux said, honest, and that honesty made arguing with her hopeless. Up to a point she was shrewd and clear-minded, and beyond that she suffered from Miss Lux’s “astigmatism”; and for mental astigmatism nothing could be done. Henrietta was not consciously cheating, and therefore could not be reasoned, frightened, nor cajoled into a different course. Lucy thought with something like dismay of the party she was to attend presently. How was she going to face a gathering of Seniors, all speculating about Arlinghurst and rejoicing openly over Innes’s good luck?

How was she going to face Innes herself, with the radiance in her eyes? The Innes who “wouldn’t call the king her cousin.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04