Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

13

Lucy could no longer see the faces, but she felt the silence go suddenly blank. Become void and dead. It was the difference between a summer silence full of bird-notes and leaves and wind in the grasses, and the frozen stillness of some Arctic waste. And then, into the dead void just as they reached the door, came the first faint sibilant whisper as they repeated the name.

“Rouse!” they were saying. “Rouse!”

And Lucy, stepping into the warm sunlight, shivered. The sound reminded her of frozen particles being swept over a snow surface by a bitter wind. She even remembered where she had seen and heard those particles: that Easter she had spent on Speyside when they had missed the Grantown bus and they were a long way from home and they had to walk it every foot of the way, under a leaden sky into a bitter wind over a frozen world. She felt a long way from home now, crossing the sunny courtyard to the quadrangle door, and the sky seemed to her as leaden as any Highland one in a March storm. She wished for a moment that she were at home, in her own quiet little sitting-room, settling down for a Sunday afternoon of unbroken peace, untouched by human problems and unhurt by human griefs. She toyed with the idea of inventing an excuse to go when tomorrow morning’s post would give her a chance; but she had looked forward like a child to the Demonstration on Friday, and she had now a quite personal interest in what had promised to be for her merely something new in spectacles. She knew all the Seniors personally and a great many of the Juniors; she had talked “Dem.” with them, shared their half-fearful anticipation of it, even helped to make their costumes. It was the summit, the triumphant flower, the resounding full-stop of their College careers, and she could not bear to go without seeing it; without being part of it.

She had dropped the rest of the Staff, who were bound for the front of the house, but Wragg, coming behind her to pin a notice on the students’ board, mopped her forehead in frank relief and said: “Thank heaven that is over. I think it was the worst thing I have ever had to do. I couldn’t eat my lunch with thinking of it.” And Lucy remembered that there had indeed been the phenomenon of a large piece of tart unfinished on Miss Wragg’s plate.

That was life, that was. Innes had Heaven’s door shut in her face, and Wragg couldn’t finish her pudding!

No one had yet come out of the dining-room — College appetites being so much larger than Staff ones, their meals lasted at least ten or fifteen minutes longer — so the corridors were still deserted as Lucy went up to her room. She resolved to get away from Leys before the crowd of students overran the countryside. She would go away deep into the green and white and yellow countryside, and smell the may and lie in the grass and feel the world turning on its axis, and remember that it was a very large world, and that College griefs were wild and bitter but soon over and that in the Scale of Things they were undeniably Very Small Beer.

She changed her shoes to something more appropriate to field paths, crossed to the “old house” and ran down the front stairs and out by the front door so as to avoid the students who would now be percolating out of the dining-room. The “old house” was very silent and she deduced that there had been no lingering in the drawing-room after lunch today. She skirted the house and made for the field behind the gymnasium, with vague thoughts of Bidlington and The Teapot stirring in her mind. The hedge of may was a creamy foam on her right and on her left the buttercups were a golden sea. The elms, half-floating in the warm light, were anchored each to its purple shadow, and daisies patterned the short grass under her feet. It was a lovely world, a fine round gracious world, and no day for — Oh, poor Innes! poor Innes! — no day for the world to turn over and crush one.

It was when she was debating with herself whether to cross the little bridge, to turn down-stream to Bidlington, or up-stream to the unknown, that she saw Beau. Beau was standing in the middle of the bridge watching the water, but with her green linen dress and bright hair she was so much a part of the sunlight-and-shadow under the willows that Lucy had been unaware that anyone was there. As she came into the shade herself and could see more clearly, Lucy saw that Beau was watching her come, but she gave her no greeting. This was so unlike Beau that Lucy was daunted.

“Hullo,” she said, and leaned beside her on the wooden rail. “Isn’t it beautiful this afternoon?” Must you sound so idiotic? she asked herself.

There was no answer to this, but presently Beau said: “Did you know about this appointment?”

“Yes,” said Lucy. “I— I heard the Staff talking about it.”

“When?”

“Yesterday.”

“Then you knew this morning when you were talking to us.”

“Yes. Why?”

“It would have been kind if someone had warned her.”

“Warned whom?”

“Innes. It isn’t very nice to have your teeth kicked in in public.”

She realised that Beau was sick with rage. Never before had she seen her even out of temper, and now she was so angry that she could hardly talk.

“But how could I have done that?” she asked reasonably, dismayed to be taken personally to task for something that she considered none of her business. “It would have been disloyal to mention it before Miss Hodge had announced her decision. For all I knew she might have altered that decision; when I left her it was still possible that she might see things from —” She stopped, realising where she was headed. But Beau too had realised. She turned her head sharply to look at Miss Pym.

“Oh. You argued with her about it. You didn’t approve of her choice, then?”

“Of course not.” She looked at the angry young face so near her own and decided to be frank. “You might as well know, Beau, that no one approves. The Staff feel about it very much as you do. Miss Hodge is an old friend of mine, and I owe her a great deal, and admire her, but where this appointment is concerned she is ‘on her own.’ I have been desolated ever since I first heard of it, I would do anything to reverse it, to waken up tomorrow and find that it is just a bad dream; but as to warning anyone —” She lifted her hand in a gesture of helplessness.

Beau had gone back to glaring at the water. “A clever woman like you could have thought of something,” she muttered.

The “clever woman” somehow made Beau of a sudden very young and appealing; it was not like the confident and sophisticated Beau to look for help or to think of her very ordinary Pym self as clever. She was after all a child; a child raging and hurt at the wrong that had been done her friend. Lucy had never liked her so well.

“Even a hint,” Beau went on, muttering at the water. “Even a suggestion that there might be someone else in the running. Anything to warn her. To make the shock less shattering. To put her on her guard, so that she wasn’t wide open. It had to be punishment, but it needn’t have been a massacre. You could have sacrificed a little scruple in so good a cause, couldn’t you?”

Lucy felt, belatedly, that perhaps she might have.

“Where is she?” she asked. “Where is Innes?”

“I don’t know. She ran straight out of College before I could catch her up. I know she came this way, but I don’t know where she went from here.”

“She will take it very badly?”

“Did you expect her to be brave and noble about the hideous mess?” Beau said savagely, and then, instantly: “Oh, I’m sorry. I do beg your pardon. I know you’re sorry about it too. I’m just not fit to be spoken to just now.”

“Yes, I am sorry,” Lucy said. “I admired Innes the first time I saw her, and I think she would have been an enormous success at Arlinghurst.”

“Would have been,” muttered Beau.

“How did Miss Rouse take the news? Was she surprised, do you think?”

“I didn’t wait to see,” Beau said shortly. And presently: “I think I shall go up-stream. There is a little thorn wood up there that she is very fond of; she may be there.”

“Are you worried about her?” Lucy asked; feeling that if it were merely comforting that Beau planned, Innes would surely prefer solitude at the moment.

“I don’t think she is busy committing suicide, if that is what you mean. But of course I am worried about her. A shock like that would be bad for anyone — especially coming now, at the end of term when one is tired. But Innes — Innes has always cared too much about things.” She paused to look at the water again. “When we were Juniors and Madame used to blister us with her sarcasm — Madame can be simply unspeakable, you know — the rest of us just came up in weals but Innes was actually flayed; just raw flesh. She never cried, as some of the others did when they’d had too much for one go. She just — just burned up inside. It’s bad for you to burn up inside. And once when —” She stopped, and seemed to decide that she had said enough. Either she had been on the verge of an indiscretion or she came to the conclusion that discussing her friend with a comparative stranger, however sympathetic, was not after all the thing to do. “She has no oil on her feathers, Innes,” she finished.

She stepped off the bridge and began to walk away up the path by the willows. “If I was rude,” she said, pausing just before she disappeared, “do forgive me. I didn’t mean to be.”

Lucy went on looking at the smooth silent water, wishing passionately that she could recover the little red book which she had consigned so smugly to the brook two days ago, and thinking of the girl who had no “duck’s back”— no protective mechanism against the world’s weather. The girl who could neither whimper nor laugh; who “burned up inside” instead. She rather hoped that Beau would not find her until the worst was over; she had not run to Beau for sympathy, she had run as far and as fast from human company as she could, and it seemed only fair to let her have the solitude she sought.

It would do Beau no harm at any rate, Lucy thought, to find that the world had its snags and its disappointments; life had been much too easy for Beau. It was a pity that she had to learn at Innes’s expense.

She crossed the bridge into the games field, turned her face to open country and took the hedge gaps as they came; hoping that she might not overtake Innes, and determined to turn a blind eye in her direction if she did. But there was no Innes. No one at all moved in the Sunday landscape. Everyone was still digesting roast beef. She was alone with the hedges of may, the pasture, and the blue sky. Presently she came to the edge of a slope, from which she could look across a shallow valley to successive distances, and there she sat with her back against an oak, while the insects hummed in the grass, and the fat white clouds sailed up and passed, and the slow shadow of the tree circled round her feet. Lucy’s capacity for doing nothing was almost endless, and had been the despair of both her preceptors and her friends.

It was not until the sun was at hedge level that she roused herself to further decision. The result of her self-communing was a realisation that she could not face College supper tonight; she would walk until she found an inn, and in the half-dark she would come back to a College already hushed by the “bedroom” bell. She made a wide circle round, and in half an hour saw in the distance a steeple she recognised, whereupon she jettisoned her thoughts of an inn and wondered if The Teapot was open on Sundays. Even if it wasn’t perhaps she could persuade Miss Nevill to stay her pangs with something out of a can. It was after seven before she reached the outskirts of Bidlington, and she looked at the Martyr’s Memorial — the only ugly erection in the place — with something of a fellow interest, but the open door of The Teapot restored her. Dear Miss Nevill. Dear large clever business-like accommodating Miss Nevill.

She walked into the pleasant room, already shadowed by the opposite cottages, and found it almost empty. A family party occupied the front window, and in the far corner were a young couple who presumably owned the expensive coupé which was backed in at the end of the garden. She thought it clever of Miss Nevill to manage that the room should still look spotless and smell of flowers after the deluge of a Sunday’s traffic in June.

She was looking round for a table when a voice said: “Miss Pym!”

Lucy’s first instinct was to bolt: she was in no mood for student chat at the moment; and then she noticed that it was The Nut Tart. The Nut Tart was the female half of the couple in the corner. The male half was undoubtedly “my cousin”; the Rick who thought her adorable and who was referred to in College parlance as “that gigolo.”

Desterro rose and came over to meet her — she had charming manners on formal occasions — and drew her over to their table. “But this is lovely!” she said. “We were talking of you, and Rick was saying how much he would like to meet you, and here you are. It is magic. This is my cousin, Richard Gillespie. He was christened Riccardo, but he thinks it sounds too like a cinema star.”

“Or a band leader,” Gillespie said, shaking hands with her and putting her into a chair. His unaccented manner was very English, and did something to counteract his undoubted resemblance to the more Latin types of screen hero. Lucy saw where the “gigolo” came from; the black smooth hair that grew so thick, the eyelashes, the flare of the nostrils, the thin line of dark moustache were all according to the recipe; but nothing else was, it seemed to Lucy. Looks were what he had inherited from some Latin ancestor; but manner, breeding, and character seemed to be ordinary public school. He was considerably older than Desterro — nearly thirty, Lucy reckoned — and looked a pleasant and responsible person.

They had just ordered, it seemed, and Richard went away to the back premises to command another portion of Bidlington rarebit. “It is a cheese affair,” Desterro said, “but not those Welsh things you get in London teashops. It is a very rich cheese sauce on very soft buttery toast, and it is flavoured with odd things like nutmeg — I think it is nutmeg — and things like that, and it tastes divine.”

Lucy, who was in no state to care what food tasted like, said that it sounded delicious. “Your cousin is English, then?”

“Oh, yes. We are not what you call first cousins,” she explained as Richard came back. “The sister of my father’s father married his mother’s father.”

“In simpler words,” Richard said, “our grandparents were brother and sister.”

“It may be simpler, but it is not explicit,” Desterro said, with all the scorn of a Latin for the Saxon indifference to relationships.

“Do you live in Larborough?” Lucy asked Richard.

“No, I work in London, at our head office. But just now I am doing liaison work in Larborough.”

In spite of herself Lucy’s eye swivelled round to Desterro, busy with a copy of the menu.

“One of our associated firms is here, and I am working with them for a week or two,” Rick said smoothly; and laughed at her with his eyes. And then, to put her mind completely at rest: “I came with a chit to Miss Hodge, vouching for my relationship, my respectability, my solvency, my presentability, my orthodoxy —”

“Oh, be quiet, Rick,” Desterro said, “it is not my fault that my father is Brazilian and my mother French. What is saffron dough-cake?”

“Teresa is the loveliest person to take out to a meal,” Rick said. “She eats like a starved lion. My other women friends spend the whole evening reckoning the calories and imagining what is happening to their waists.”

“Your other women friends,” his cousin pointed out a trifle astringently, “have not spent twelve months at Leys Physical Training College, being sweated down to vanishing point and fed on vegetable macedoine.”

Lucy, remembering the piles of bread wolfed by the students at every meal, thought this an overstatement.

“When I go back to Brazil I shall live like a lady and eat like a civilised person, and it will be time then to consider my calories.”

Lucy asked when she was going back.

“I am sailing on the last day of August. That will give me a little of the English summer to enjoy between the last day of College and my going away. I like the English summer. So green, and gentle, and kind. I like everything about the English except their clothes, their winter, and their teeth. Where is Arlinghurst?”

Lucy, who had forgotten Desterro’s abrupt hopping from one subject to another, was too surprised by the name to answer immediately and Rick answered for her. “It’s the best girls’ school in England,” he finished, having described the place. “Why?”

“It is the College excitement at the moment. One of our students is going there straight from Leys. One would think she had at least been made a Dame, to listen to them.”

“A legitimate reason for excitement, it seems to me,” Rick observed. “Not many people get professional plums straight out of college.”

“Yes? It really is an honour then, you think?”

“A very great one, I imagine. Isn’t it, Miss Pym?”

“Very.”

“Oh, well. I am glad of it. It is sad to think of her wasting the years in a girls’ school, but if it is an honour for her, then I am glad.”

“For whom?” Lucy asked.

“For Innes, of course.”

“Were you not at lunch today?” asked Lucy, puzzled.

“No. Rick came with the car and we went over to the Saracen’s Head at Beauminster. Why? What has that to do with this school affair?”

“It isn’t Innes who is going to Arlinghurst.”

“Not Innes! But they all said she was. Everyone said so.”

“Yes, that is what everyone expected, but it didn’t turn out like that.”

“No? Who is going, then?”

“Rouse.”

Desterro stared.

“Oh, no. No, that I refuse to believe. It is quite simply not possible.”

“It is true, I am afraid.”

“You mean that — that someone — that they have preferred that canaille, that espèce d’une—!”

“Teresa!” warned Rick, amused to see her moved for once.

Desterro sat silent for a space, communing with herself.

“If I were not a lady,” she said at length in clear tones, “I would spit!”

The family party looked over, surprised and faintly alarmed. They decided that it was time they were going, and began to collect their things and reckon up what they had had.

“Now look what you have done,” Rick said. “Alarmed the lieges.”

At this moment the rarebits arrived from the kitchen, with Miss Nevill’s large chintz presence behind them; but The Nut Tart, far from being distracted by the savoury food, remembered that it was from Miss Nevill that she had first had news of the Arlinghurst vacancy, and the subject took a fresh lease of life. It was Rick who rescued Lucy from the loathed subject by pointing out that the rarebit was rapidly cooling; Lucy had a strong feeling that he himself cared nothing for the rarebit, but that he had somehow become aware of her tiredness and her distaste for the affair; and she felt warm and grateful to him and on the point of tears.

“After all,” pointed out Rick as The Nut Tart at last turned her attention to her food, “I don’t know Miss Innes, but if she is as wonderful as you say she is bound to get a very good post, even if it isn’t exactly Arlinghurst.”

This was the argument with which Lucy had sought to comfort herself all the long afternoon. It was reasonable, logical, and balanced; and as a sort of moral belladonna-plaster it was so much red flannel. Lucy understood why The Nut Tart rejected it with scorn.

“How would you like to have that preferred to you?” she demanded through a large mouthful of rarebit. “That” was Rouse. “How would you like to believe that they were going to pay you honour, a fine public honour, and then have them slap your face in front of everyone?”

“Having your teeth kicked in,” Beau had called it. Their reactions were remarkably similar. The only difference was that Desterro saw the insult, and Beau the injury.

“And we had such a lovely happy morning in this very room the other day with Innes’s father and mother,” Desterro went on, her fine eyes wandering to the table where they had sat. This, too, Lucy had been remembering. “Such nice people, Rick; I wish you could see them. We were all nice people together: me, and Miss Pym, and the Inneses père et mère, and we had an interval of civilisation and some good coffee. It was charming. And now —”

Between them, Lucy and Rick steered her away from the subject; and it was not until they were getting into the car to go back to Leys that she remembered and began to mourn again. But the distance between Bidlington and Leys as covered by Rick’s car was so short that she had no time to work herself up before they were at the door. Lucy said goodnight and was going to withdraw tactfully, but The Nut Tart came with her. “Goodnight, Rick,” she said, casually. “You are coming on Friday, aren’t you?”

“Nothing will stop me,” Rick assured her. “Three o’clock, is it?”

“No, half-past two. It is written on your invitation card. The invitation I sent you. For a business person you are not very accurate.”

“Oh, well, my business things I naturally keep in files.”

“And where do you keep my invitation?”

“On a gold chain between my vest and my heart,” Rick said, and went the winner out of that exchange.

“Your cousin is charming,” Lucy said, as they went up the steps together.

“You think so? I am very glad. I think so too. He has all the English virtues, and a little spice of something that is not English virtue at all. I am glad he is coming to see me dance on Friday. What makes you smile?”

Lucy, who had been smiling at this typically Desterro view of her cousin’s presence on Friday, hastened to change the subject,

“Shouldn’t you be going in by the other door?”

“Oh, yes, but I don’t suppose anyone will mind. In a fortnight I shall be free to come up these steps if I like — I shall not like, incidentally — so I might as well use them now. I do not take well to tradesmen’s entrances.”

Lucy had meant to pay her respects to the Staff before going to her room in the wing, but the hall was so quiet, the air of the house so withdrawn, that she was discouraged and took the line of least resistance. She would see them all in the morning.

The Nut Tart paid at least a token obedience to College rules, and it was apparent from the hush in the wing corridor that the “bedroom” bell must have gone some minutes ago; so they said goodnight at the top of the stairs, and Lucy went away to her room at the far end. As she undressed she found that her ear was waiting for a sound from next door. But there was no sound at all; nor was there any visible light from the window, as she noticed when she drew her own curtains. Had Innes not come back?

She sat for a while wondering whether she should do something about it. If Innes had not come back, Beau would be in need of comfort. And if Innes had come back and was silent, was there perhaps some impersonal piece of kindness, some small service, that she could do to express her sympathy without intrusion?

She switched off her light and drew back the curtains, and sat by the open window looking at the brightly lit squares all round the little quadrangle — it was considered an eccentricity to draw a curtain in this community — watching the separate activities of the now silent and individual students. One was brushing her hair, one sewing something, one putting a bandage on her foot (a Foolish Virgin that one; she was hopping about looking for a pair of scissors instead of having begun with the implement already laid out, like a good masseuse), one wriggling into a pyjama jacket, one swatting a moth.

Two lights went out as she watched. Tomorrow the waking bell would go at half-past five again, and now that examinations were over they need no longer stay awake till the last moment over their notebooks.

She heard footsteps come along her own corridor, and got up, thinking they were coming at her. Innes’s door opened quietly, and shut. No light was switched on, but she heard the soft movements of someone getting ready for bed. Then bedroom slippers in the corridor, and a knock. No answer.

“It’s me: Beau,” a voice said; and the door was opened. The murmur of voices as the door closed. The smell of coffee and the faint chink of china.

It was sensible of Beau to meet the situation with food. Whatever demons Innes had wrestled with during the long hours between one o’clock and ten she must now be empty of emotion and ready to eat what was put in front of her. The murmur of voices went on until the “lights out” bell sounded; then the door opened and closed again, and the silence next-door merged into the greater silence that enveloped Leys.

Lucy fell into bed, too tired almost to pull up the covers; angry with Henrietta, sad for Innes, and a little envious of her in that she had a friend like Beau.

She decided to stay awake a little and think of some way in which she could express to poor Innes how great was her own sympathy and how deep her own indignation; and fell instantly asleep.

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