Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

11

Supper at Leys was the formal meal of the day, with the Seniors in their dancing silks and the rest in supper frocks, but on Saturdays when so many had “Larborough leave” it was a much more casual affair. Students sat where they pleased, and, within the bounds of convention, wore what they pleased. Tonight the atmosphere was even more informal than usual since so many had departed to celebrate the end of Examination Week elsewhere, and still more were planning celebration on the spot after supper. Henrietta did not appear — it was understood that she was having a tray in her room — and Madame Lefevre was absent on concerns of her own. Fröken and her mother were at the theatre in Larborough, so Lucy shared the top table with Miss Lux and Miss Wragg, and found it very pleasant. By tacit consent the burning question of Arlinghurst was not referred to.

“One would think,” said Miss Lux, turning over with a fastidious fork the vegetable mysteries on her plate, “that on a night of celebration Miss Joliffe would have provided something more alluring than a scranbag.”

“It’s because it’s a celebration night that she doesn’t bother,” said Wragg, eating heartily. “She knows quite well that there is enough good food waiting upstairs to sink a battleship.”

“Not for us, unfortunately. Miss Pym must put something in her pocket for us when she is coming away.”

“I bought some cream puffs in Larborough on the way home from the match,” Wragg confessed. “We can have our coffee in my room and have a gorge.”

Miss Lux looked as if she would have preferred cheese straws, but in spite of her chill incisiveness she was a kind person, so she said: “I take that very kindly of you, so I do.”

“I thought you would be going to the theatre, or I would have suggested it before.”

“An out-moded convention,” said Miss Lux.

“Don’t you like the theatre?” asked the surprised Lucy, to whom the theatre was still a part of childhood’s magic.

Miss Lux stopped looking with a questioning revulsion at a piece of carrot, and said: “Have you ever considered what you would think of the theatre if you were taken to it for the first time, now, without the referred affection of childhood pantomimes and what not? Would you really find a few dressed-up figures posturing in a lighted box entertaining? And the absurd convention of intervals — once devoted to the promenade of toilettes and now perpetuated for the benefit of the bar. What other entertainment would permit of such arbitrary interruption? Does one stop in the middle of a symphony to go and have a drink?”

“But a play is made that way,” Lucy protested.

“Yes. As I said; an out-moded convention.”

This dashed Lucy a little, not because of her lingering affection for the theatre, but because she had been so wrong about Miss Lux. She would have said that Miss Lux would be a passionate attender of try-out performances in the drearier suburbs of plays devoted to a Cause and Effects.

“Well, I nearly went tonight myself,” Wragg said, “just to see Edward Adrian again. I had a terrific rave on him when I was a student. I expect he’s a bit passé now. Have you ever seen him?”

“Not on the stage. He used to spend his holidays with us when he was a boy.” Miss Lux ran her fork once more through the heap on her plate and decided that there was nothing further worth her attention.

Used to spend the holidays! At your house?

“Yes, he went to school with my brother.”

“Good heavens! how absolutely incredible!”

“What is incredible about it?”

“I mean, one just doesn’t think of Edward Adrian as being an ordinary person that people know. Just a schoolboy like anyone else.”

“A very horrid little boy.”

“Oh, no!”

“A quite revolting little boy. Always watching himself in mirrors. And possessed of a remarkable talent for getting the best of everything that was going.” She sounded calm, and clinical, and detached.

“Oh, Catherine, you shatter me.”

“No one I have ever met had the same genius for leaving someone else holding the baby as Teddy Adrian.”

“He has other kinds of genius though, surely,” Lucy ventured.

“He has talent, yes.”

“Do you still see him?” asked Wragg, still a little dazzled to be getting first-hand news of Olympus.

“Only by accident. When my brother died we gave up the house that our parents had had, and there were no more family gatherings.”

“And you’ve never seen him on the stage?”

“Never.”

“And you didn’t even go a sixpenny bus-ride into Larborough to see him play tonight.”

“I did not. I told you, the theatre bores me inexpressibly.”

“But it’s Shakespeare.”

“Very well, it’s Shakespeare. I would rather sit at home and read him in the company of Doreen Wragg and her cream puffs. You won’t forget to put something in your pocket for us when you leave your feast, will you, Miss Pym? Anything gratefully received by the starving proletariat. Macaroons, Mars bars, blood oranges, left-over sandwiches, squashed sausage rolls —”

“I’ll put a hat round,” promised Lucy. “I’ll pass the hat and quaver: ‘Don’t forget the Staff.’”

But as she lifted the champagne bottle out of its melting ice in her wash-bowl she did not feel so gay about it. This party was going to be an ordeal, there was no denying it. She tied a big bow of ribbon to the neck of the bottle, to make it look festive and to take away any suggestion of “bringing her own liquor”; the result was rather like a duchess in a paper cap, but she didn’t think that the simile would occur to the students. She had hesitated over her own toilette, being divided between a rough-and-tumble outfit suitable to a cushions-on-the-floor gathering, and the desire to do her hosts honour. She had paid them the compliment of putting on her “lecture” frock, and doing an extra-careful make-up. If Henrietta had taken away from this party by her vagaries, she, Lucy, would bring all she could to it.

Judging by the noise in other rooms, and the running back and fore with kettles, Stewart’s was not the only party in Leys that evening. The corridors smelt strongly of coffee, and waves of laughter and talk rose and died away as doors were opened and shut. Even the Juniors seemed to be entertaining; if they had no Posts to celebrate they had the glory of having their first Final behind them. Lucy remembered that she had not found out from The Nut Tart how she had fared in that Anatomy Final. (“Today’s idea may be nonsense tomorrow, but a clavicle is a clavicle for all time.”) When she passed the students’ notice-board again she must look for Desterro’s name.

She had to knock twice at the door of Number Ten before the sound penetrated, but when a flushed Stewart opened the door and drew her in a sudden shyness fell on the group, so that they got to their feet in polite silence like well-brought-up children.

“We are so glad to have you,” Stewart was beginning, when Dakers sighted the bottle and all formality was at an end.

Drink!” she shrieked. “As I live and breathe, drink! Oh, Miss Pym you are a poppet!

“I hope that I am not breaking any rules,” Lucy said, remembering that there had been an expression in Miss Joliffe’s eye that she had still not accounted for, “but it seemed to me an occasion for champagne.”

“It’s a triple occasion,” Stewart said. “Dakers and Thomas are celebrating too. It couldn’t be more of an occasion. It was lovely of you to think of the champagne.”

“It will be sacrilege to drink it out of tooth-glasses,” Hasselt said.

“Well, anyhow, we drink it now, as aperitif. A course by itself. Pass up your glasses everyone. Miss Pym, the chair is for you.”

A basket chair had been imported and lined with a motley collection of cushions; except for the hard chair at the desk it was the only legitimate seat in the room, the rest of the party having brought their cushions with them and being now disposed about the floor or piled in relaxed heaps like kittens on the bed. Someone had tied a yellow silk handkerchief over the light so that a golden benevolence took the place of the usual hard brightness. The twilight beyond the wide-open window made a pale blue back-cloth that would soon be a dark one. It was like any student party of her own college days, but as a picture it had more brilliance than her own parties had had. Was it just that the colours of the cushions were gayer? That the guests were better physical types, without lank hair, spectacles, and studious pallor?

No, of course it wasn’t that. She knew what it was. There was no cigarette smoke.

“O’Donnell isn’t here yet,” Thomas said, collecting tooth-glasses from the guests and laying them on the cloth that covered the desk.

“I expect she’s helping Rouse to put up the boom,” a Disciple said.

“She can’t be,” a second Disciple said, “it’s Saturday.”

“Even a P.T.I. stops work on a Sunday,” said a third.

“Even Rouse,” commented the fourth.

“Is Miss Rouse still practising rotatory travelling?” Lucy asked.

“Oh, yes,” they said. “She will be, up to the day of the Dem.”

“And when does she find time?”

“She goes when she is dressed in the morning. Before first class.”

“Six o’clock,” said Lucy. “Horrible.”

“It’s no worse than any other time,” they said. “At least one is fresh, and there is no hurry, and you can have the gym. to yourself. Besides, it’s the only possible time. The boom has to be put away before first class.”

“She doesn’t have to go,” Stewart said, “the knack has come back. But she is terrified she will lose it again before the Dem.”

“I can understand that, my dear,” Dakers said. “Think what an immortal fool one would feel hanging like a sick monkey from the boom, with all the élite looking on, and Fröken simply stabbing one with that eye of hers. My dear, death would be a happy release. If Donnie isn’t doing her usual chore for Rouse, where is she? She’s the only one not here.”

“Poor Don,” Thomas said, “she hasn’t got a post yet.” Thomas with her junior-of-three in Wales was feeling like a millionaire.

“Don’t worry over Don,” Hasselt said, “the Irish always fall on their feet.”

But Miss Pym was looking round for Innes, and not finding her. Nor was Beau there.

Stewart, seeing her wandering eye, interpreted the question in it and said: “Beau and Innes wanted me to tell you how sorry they were to miss the party, and to hope that you would be their guest at another one before the end of term.”

“Beau will be giving one for Innes,” Hasselt said. “To celebrate Arlinghurst.”

“As a matter of fact, we’re all giving a party for Innes,” a Disciple said.

“A sort of general jamboree,” said a second Disciple.

“It’s an honour for College, after all,” said a third.

“You’ll come to that, won’t you, Miss Pym,” said a fourth, making it a statement rather than a question.

“Nothing would please me more,” Lucy said. And then, glad to skate away from such thin ice: “What has happened to Beau and Innes?”

“Beau’s people turned up unexpectedly and took them off to the theatre in Larborough,” Stewart said.

“That’s what it is to own a Rolls,” Thomas said, quite without envy. “You just dash around England as the fit takes you. When my people want to move they have to yoke up the old grey mare — a brown cob, actually — and trot twenty miles before they reach any place at all.”

“Farmers?” Lucy asked, seeing the lonely narrow Welsh road winding through desolation.

“No, my father is a clergyman. But we have to keep a horse to work the place, and we can’t have a horse and a car too.”

“Oh, well,” said a Disciple arranging herself more comfortably on the bed, “who wants to go to the theatre anyhow?”

“Of all the boring ways of spending an evening,” said a second.

“Sitting with one’s knees in someone’s back,” said a third.

“With one’s eyes glued to opera glasses,” said a fourth.

“Why opera glasses?” asked Lucy, surprised to find Miss Lux’s attitude repeated in a gathering where sophistication had not yet destroyed a juvenile thirst for entertainment.

“What would you see without them?”

“Little dolls walking about in a box.”

“Like something on Brighton pier.”

“Except that on Brighton pier you can see the expression on the faces.”

They were rather like something from Brighton pier themselves, Lucy thought. A turn. A sort of extended Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They were apparently not moved to speech unless one of their number made a remark; when the others felt called upon to produce corroborative evidence.

“Me, I’m only too glad to put my feet up and do nothing for a change,” Hasselt said. “I’m breaking in a new pair of ballet shoes for the Dem. and my blisters are spectacular.”

“Miss Hasselt,” said Stewart, obviously quoting, “it is a student’s business to preserve her body in a state of fitness at all times.”

“That may be,” said Hasselt, “but I’m not standing in a bus for five miles on a Saturday night to go anywhere, least of all to a theatre.”

“Anyhow, it’s only Shakespeare, my dears,” Dakers said. “It is the cause, my soul!’” she burlesqued, clutching at her breast.

“Edward Adrian, though,” volunteered Lucy, feeling that her beloved theatre must have one champion.

“Who is Edward Adrian?” Dakers asked, in genuine inquiry.

“He’s that weary-looking creature who looks like a moulting eagle,” Stewart said, too busy about her hostess’s duties to be aware of the reaction on Lucy: that was a horribly vivid summing-up of Edward Adrian, as seen by the unsentimental eyes of modern youth. “We used to be taken to see him when I was at school in Edinburgh.”

“And didn’t you enjoy it?” Lucy asked, remembering that Stewart’s name headed the lists on the notice-board along with Innes’s and Beau’s, and that mental activity would not be for her the chore that it probably was for some of the others.

“Oh, it was better than sitting in a class-room,” Stewart allowed. “But it was all terribly — old-fashioned. Nice to look at, but a bit dreary. I’m a tooth-glass short.”

“Mine, I suppose,” O’Donnell said, coming in on the words and handing over her glass. “I’m afraid I’m late. I was looking for some shoes that my feet would go into. Forgive these, won’t you, Miss Pym,” she indicated the bedroom slippers she was wearing. “My feet have died on me.”

“Do you know who Edward Adrian is?” Lucy asked her.

“Certainly I do,” O’Donnell said. “I’ve had a rave on him ever since I went to see him at the age of twelve in Belfast.”

“You seem to be the only person in this room either to know or to admire him.”

“Ah, the heathen,” said O’Donnell, casting a scornful eye on the gathering — and it seemed to Lucy that O’Donnell was suspiciously bright about the eyes, as if she had been crying. “It’s in Larborough I would be this minute, sitting at his feet, if it wasn’t practically the end of term and I lacked the price of a seat.”

And if, thought Lucy pitying, you hadn’t felt that backing out of this party would be put down to your being the only one present not yet to have a post. She liked the girl who had dried her eyes and thought of the bedroom slipper excuse and come gaily to the party that was none of hers.

“Well,” said Stewart, busy with the wire of the cork, “now that O’Donnell is here we can open the bottle.”

“Good heavens, champagne!” O’Donnell said.

The wine came foaming into the thick blunt tooth-glasses, and they turned to Lucy expectantly.

“To Stewart in Scotland, to Thomas in Wales, to Dakers at Ling Abbey,” she said.

They drank that.

“And to all our friends between Capetown and Manchester,” Stewart said.

And they drank that too.

“Now, Miss Pym, what will you eat?”

And Lucy settled down happily to enjoy herself. Rouse was not going to be a guest; and she was by some special intervention of Providence in the shape of rich parents in a Rolls–Royce going to be spared the ordeal of sitting opposite an Innes bursting with happiness that had no vestige of foundation.

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