Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

12

But by noon on Sunday she was much less happy, and was wishing that she had had the foresight to invent a luncheon engagement in Larborough and so remove herself out of the area of the explosion that was coming. She had always hated explosions, literal and metaphorical; people who blew into paper bags and then burst them had always been regarded by Lucy with a mixture of abhorrence and awe. And the paper bag that was going to be burst after lunch was a particularly nasty affair; an explosion whose reverberations would be endless and unpredictable. At the back of her mind was the faint hope that Henrietta might have changed her mind; that the silent witness of those tell-tale lists on the notice-board might have proved more eloquent than her own poor words. But no amount of encouragement could make this hope anything but embryonic. She remembered only too clearly that a shaking of Henrietta’s faith in Rouse would not mean a corresponding access of belief in Innes as a candidate. The best that could be hoped for was that she might write to the Head at Arlinghurst and say that there was no Leaving Student good enough for so exalted a post; and that would do nothing to save Innes from the grief that was coming to her. No, she really should have got herself out of Leys for Sunday lunch and come back when it was all over. Even in Larborough, it was to be supposed, there were people that one might conceivably be going to see. Beyond those over-rich villas of the outskirts with their smooth sanded avenues and their pseudo everything, somewhere between them and the soot of the city there must be a belt of people like herself. Doctors, there must be, for instance. She could have invented a doctor friend — except that doctors were listed in registers. If she had thought in time she could have invited herself to lunch with Dr Knight; after all, Knight owed her something. Or she could have taken sandwiches and just walked out into the landscape and not come home till bed-time.

Now she sat in the window-seat in the drawing-room, waiting for the Staff to assemble there before going down to the dining-room; watching the students come back from church and wondering if she had sufficient courage and resolution to seek out Miss Joliffe even yet and ask for sandwiches; or even just walk out of College with no word said — after all, one didn’t starve in the English country even on a Sunday. As Desterro said, there were always villages.

Desterro was the first to come back from church; leisured and fashionable as always. Lucy leant out and said: “Congratulations on your knowledge of the clavicle.” For she had looked at the board on the way to bed last night.

“Yes, I surprised myself,” said The Nut Tart. “My grandmother will be so pleased. A ‘first’ sounds so well, don’t you think? I boasted about it to my cousin, but he said that was most unseemly. In England one waits to be asked about one’s successes.”

“Yes,” agreed Lucy, sadly, “and the worst of it is so few people ask. The number of lights under bushels in Great Britain is tragic.”

“Not Great Britain,” amended Desterro. “He says — my cousin — that it is all right north of the river Tweed. That is the river between England and Scotland, you know. You can boast in Dunbar but not in Berwick, Rick says.”

“I should like to meet Rick,” Lucy said.

“He thinks you are quite adorable, by the way.”

Me?

“I have been telling him about you. We spent all the intervals talking about you.”

“Oh you went to the theatre, did you?”

“He went. I was taken.”

“Did you not enjoy it, then?” asked Lucy, mentally applauding the young man who made The Nut Tart do anything at all that she did not want to do.

“Oh, it was as they say, ‘not too bad.’ A little of the grand manner is nice for a change. Ballet would have been better. He is a dancer manqué, that one.”

“Edward Adrian?”

“Yes.” Her mind seemed to have strayed away. “The English wear all one kind of hat,” she said reflectively. “Up at the back and down in front.”

With which irrelevance she trailed away round the house, leaving Lucy wondering whether the remark was occasioned by last night’s audience or Dakers’ advent up the avenue. Dakers’ Sunday hat was certainly a mere superior copy of the hat she had worn at school, and under its short brim her pleasant, waggish, pony’s face looked more youthful than ever. She took off the hat with a gesture when she saw Miss Pym, and loudly expressed her delight in finding Lucy alive and well after the rigours of the night before. This was the first morning in all her college career, it seemed, when she had positively failed to eat a fifth slice of bread and marmalade.

“Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins,” she observed, “so I had need of shriving this morning. I went to the Baptist place because it is nearest.”

“And do you feel shriven?”

“I don’t know that I do, now you come to mention it. It was all very conversational.”

Lucy took it that a shamed soul demanded ritual.

“Very friendly, though, I understand.”

“Oh, frightfully. The clergyman began his sermon by leaning on one elbow and remarking: ‘Well, my friends, it’s a very fine day.’ And everyone shook hands with everyone coming out. And they had some fine warlike hymns,” she added, having thought over the Baptist good points. She looked thoughtful for a moment longer and then said: “There are some Portsmouth Brothers on the Larborough road —”

“Plymouth.”

“Plymouth what?”

“Plymouth Brethren, I suppose you mean.”

“Oh, yes; I know it had something to do with the Navy. And I’m Pompey by inclination. Well, I think I shall sample them next Sunday. You don’t suppose they’re private, or anything like that?”

Miss Pym thought not, and Dakers swung her hat in a wide gesture of burlesque farewell and went on round the house.

By ones and twos, and in little groups, the students returned from their compulsory hour out of College. Waving or calling a greeting or merely smiling, as their temperaments were. Even Rouse called a happy “Good morning, Miss Pym!” as she passed. Almost last came Beau and Innes; walking slowly, serene and relaxed. They came to rest beneath the window looking up at her.

“Heathen!” said Beau, smiling at her.

They were sorry they missed the party, they said, but there would be others.

“I shall be giving one myself when the Dem. is over,” Beau said. “You’ll come to that, won’t you?”

“I shall be delighted. How was the theatre?”

“It might have been worse. We sat behind Colin Barry.”

“Who is he?”

“The All–England hockey ‘half.’”

“And I suppose that helped Othello a lot.”

“It helped the intervals, I assure you.”

“Didn’t you want to see Othello?”

“Not us! We were dying to go to Irma Ireland’s new film —Flaming Barriers. It sounds very sultry but actually, I believe, it’s just a good clean forest fire. But my parents’ idea of a night out is the theatre and a box of chocolates for the intervals. We couldn’t disappoint the old dears.”

“Did they like it?”

“Oh, they loved it. They spent the whole of supper talking about it.”

“You’re a fine pair to call anyone ‘heathen,’” Lucy observed.

“Come to tea with the Seniors this afternoon,” Beau said.

Lucy said hastily that she was going out to tea.

Beau eyed her guilty face with something like amusement, but Innes said soberly: “We should have asked you before. You are not going away before the Dem., are you?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“Then will you come to tea with the Seniors next Sunday?”

“Thank you. If I am here I should be delighted.”

“My lesson in manners,” said Beau.

They stood there on the gravel looking up at her, smiling. That was how she always remembered them afterwards. Standing there in the sunlight, easy and graceful; secure in their belief in the world’s rightness and in their trust in each other. Untouched by doubt or blemish. Taking it for granted that the warm gravel under their feet was lasting earth, and not the precipice edge of disaster.

It was the five-minute bell that roused them. As they moved away, Miss Lux came into the room behind, looking grimmer than Lucy had ever seen her.

“I can’t imagine why I’m here,” she said. “If I had thought in time I wouldn’t be taking part in this God-forsaken farce at all.”

Lucy said that that was exactly what she herself had been thinking.

“I suppose there has been no word of Miss Hodge having a change of heart?”

“Not as far as I know. I’m afraid it isn’t likely.”

“What a pity we didn’t all go out to lunch. If Miss Hodge had to call Rouse’s name from a completely deserted table, College would at least be aware that we had no part in this travesty.”

“If you didn’t have to mark yourself ‘out’ on the slate before eleven, I would go now, but I haven’t the nerve.”

“Oh well, perhaps we can do something with our expressions to convey that we consider the whole thing just a bad smell.”

It’s the being there to countenance it she minds, thought Lucy; while I just want to run away from unpleasantness like a child. Not for the first time, she wished she was a more admirable character.

Madame Lefevre came floating in wearing a cocoa-brown silk affair that was shot with a metallic blue in the high-lights; which made her look more than ever like some exotic kind of dragon-fly. It was partly those enormous headlamps of eyes, of course; like some close-up of an insect in half-remembered Nature “shorts”; the eyes and the thin brown body, so angular yet so graceful. Madame, having got over her immediate rage, had, it seemed, recovered her detached contempt for the human species, and was regarding the situation with malicious if slightly enjoyable distaste.

“Never having attended a wake,” she said, “I look forward with interest to the performance today.”

“You are a ghoul,” Lux said; but without feeling, as if she were too depressed to care greatly. “Haven’t you done anything to alter her mind?”

“Oh, yes, I have wrestled with the Powers of Darkness. Wrestled very mightily. Also very cogently, may I say. With example and precept. Who was it who was condemned to push an enormous stone up a hill for ever? Extraordinary how appropriate these mythological fancies still are. I wonder if a ballet of Punishments would be any good? Sweeping out stables, and so forth. To Bach, perhaps. Though Bach is not very inspirational, choreographically speaking. And a great many people rise up and call one damned, of course, if one uses him.”

“Oh, stop it,” Lux said. “We are going to connive at an abomination and you speculate about choreography!”

“My good, if too earnest, Catherine, you must learn to take life as it comes, and to withdraw yourself from what you cannot alter. As the Chinese so rightly advise: When rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it. We connive at an abomination, as you so exquisitely put it. True. But as intelligent human beings we concern ourselves with the by-products of the action. It will be interesting to see how, for instance, the little Innes reacts to the stimulus. Will the shock be a mortal one, will it galvanise her into action, or will it send her into crazy throes of galvanic activity that has no meaning?”

“Damn your metaphors. You are talking nonsense — and you know it. It is someone else’s rape we are invited to countenance; and as far as I know there is nothing in the history of philosophy, Chinese or otherwise, to recommend that.”

“Rape?” said Fröken, coming in followed by her mother. “Who is going to be raped?”

“Innes,” Lux said dryly.

“Oh.” The twinkle died out of Fröken’s eye, leaving it cold and pale. “Yes,” she said, reflectively. “Yes.”

Fru Gustavsen’s round “Mrs Noah” face looked troubled. She looked from one to another, as if hoping for some gleam of assurance, some suggestion that the problem was capable of being resolved. She came over to Lucy in the window-seat, ducked her head in a sharp Good-morning, and said in German:

“You know about this thing the Principal does? My daughter is very angry. Very angry my daughter is. Not since she was a little girl have I seen her so angry. It is very bad what they do? You think so too?”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do.”

“Miss Hodge is a very good woman. I admire her very much. But when a good woman makes a mistake it is apt to be much worse than a bad woman’s mistake. More colossal. It is a pity.”

It was a great pity, Lucy agreed.

The door opened and Henrietta came in, with a nervous Wragg in tow. Henrietta appeared serene, if a little more stately than usual (or than circumstances demanded) but Wragg cast a placatory smile round the gathering as if pleading with them to be all girls together and look on the bright side. Their close-hedged antagonism dismayed her, and she sent an appealing glance at Madame, whose dogsbody she normally was. But Madame’s wide sardonic gaze was fixed on Henrietta.

Henrietta wished them all good morning (she had breakfasted in her own room) and she had timed her entrance very neatly, for before her greeting was finished, the murmur of the distant gong made the moment one for action, not conversation.

“It is time for us to go down, I think,” Henrietta said, and led the way out.

Madame rolled her eye at Lux in admiration of this piece of generalship, and fell in behind.

“A wake indeed!” Lux said to Lucy as they went downstairs.

“It feels more like Fotheringay.”

The demure silence waiting them in the dining-room seemed to Lucy’s heightened imagination to be charged with expectation, and certainly during the meal College seemed to be more excited than she had ever seen it. The babble of conversation deepened to a roar, so that Henrietta, coming-to between her busy gobbling of the meat course and her expectation of the pudding, sent a message by Wragg to Beau, asking that College should contain themselves.

For a little they were circumspect, but soon they forgot and the talk and laughter rose again.

“They are excited to have Examinations Week over,” Henrietta said indulgently, and let them be.

This was her only contribution to conversation — she never did converse while eating — but Wragg served up brave little platitudes at regular intervals, looking from one to the other of the shut faces round the table hopefully, like a terrier which has brought a bone to lay at one’s feet. One could almost see her tail wag. Wragg was to be the innocent means of execution, the passive knife in the guillotine, and she felt her position and was tacitly apologising for it. Oh, for Pete’s sake, she seemed to be saying, I’m only the Junior Gymnast in this set-up, it’s not my fault that I have to tag along in her rear; what do you expect me to do? — tell her to announce the damned thing herself?

Lucy was sorry for her, even while her pious pieces of the obvious made her want to scream. Be quiet, she wanted to say, do be quiet, there is nothing for a situation like this but silence.

At last Henrietta folded up her napkin, looked round the table to make sure that all her Staff had finished eating, and rose. As the Staff rose with her, College came to its feet with an alacrity and a unanimity that was rare. It was apparent that they had been waiting for this moment. Against her will, Lucy turned to look at them; at the rows of bright expectant faces, half-smiling in their eagerness; it did nothing to comfort her that they looked as if at the slightest provocation they would break into a cheer.

As Henrietta turned to the door and the Staff filed after her, Wragg faced the delighted throng and said the words that had been given her to say.

“Miss Hodge will see Miss Rouse in her office when luncheon is over.”

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