Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

16

Each successive day of her stay at Leys saw Lucy a little more wide awake in the mornings. When the monstrous clamour of the 5.30 bell had first hurled her into wakefulness, she had turned on her other side as soon as the noise stopped and had fallen asleep again. But habit was beginning to have its way. Not only did she not fall asleep again after the early waking, but for the last day or two she had been sufficiently conscious to know in some drowsy depths of her that the waking bell was about to ring. On Demonstration morning she made history by wakening before the reveillé.

What woke her was a faint fluttering under the point of her sternum: a feeling that she had not had since she was a child. It was associated with prize-giving days at school. Lucy had always had a prize of sorts. Never anything spectacular, alas — 2nd French, 3rd Drawing, 3rd Singing — but she was definitely in the money. Occasionally, too, there was a “piece” to be played — the Rachmaninoff Prelude, for one; not the DA, DA, DA one but the DA-de-de-de; with terrific concentration on the de-de-de — and consequently a new frock. Hence the tremor under the breastbone. And today, all those years afterwards, she had recaptured the sensation. For years any flutterings in that region had been mere indigestion — if indigestion can ever be mere. Now, because she was part of all the young emotion round her, she shared the thrill and the anticipation.

She sat up and looked at the weather. It was blank and grey, with a cool mist that might later lift on a blazing day. She got up and went to the window. The silence was absolute. Nothing stirred in the still greyness but the College cat, picking its way in an annoyed fashion over the dew-wet stones, and shaking each foot in turn as protest against the discomfort. The grass was heavy with dew, and Lucy, who had always had a perverted affection for wet grass, regarded it with satisfaction.

The silence was ripped in two by the bell. The cat, as if suddenly reminded of urgent business, sprang into wild flight. Giddy crunched past on his way to the gymnasium; and presently the faint whine of his vacuum-cleaner could be heard, like some far-distant siren. Groans and yawns and inquiries as to the weather came from the little rooms all round the courtyard, but no one came to a window to look; getting up was an agony to be postponed to the last moment.

Lucy decided to dress and go out into the dew-grey morning, so cool and damp and beneficent. She would go and see how the buttercups looked without the sun on them. Wet gamboge, probably. She washed sketchily, dressed in the warmest things she had with her, and slinging a coat over her shoulders went out into the silent corridor and down the deserted stairs. She paused by the quadrangle door to read the notices on the students’ board; cryptic, esoteric, and plain. “Students are reminded that parents and visitors may be shown over the bedroom wings and the clinic, but not the front of the house.” “Juniors are reminded that it is their duty to wait on the guests at tea and so help the domestic staff.” And, by itself, in capitals, the simple statement:

DIPLOMAS WILL BE PRESENTED ON
TUESDAY MORNING AT 9 O’CLOCK

As she moved on towards the covered way, Lucy visualised the diploma as an imposing roll of parchment tied up with ribbon, and then remembered that even in the matter of diplomas this place was a law unto itself. Their diploma was a badge to stick in their coat; a little enamel-and-silver affair that, pinned to the left breast of their working garment, would tell all and sundry where they had spent their student years and to what end.

Lucy came out into the covered way and dawdled along it to the gymnasium. Giddy had long since finished his cleaning operations — she had seen him from her window before she left her room contemplating his roses at the far side of the lawn — and it was apparent that Rouse had already performed her morning routine — the faint damp marks of her gym. shoes were visible on the concrete path — so the gymnasium was deserted. Lucy paused as she was about to turn along the path by its side wall, and stepped in at the wide-open door. Just as a race-course is more dramatic before the crowds blur it or an arena before its traffic writes scribbles over it, so the great waiting hall had a fascination for her. The emptiness, the quiet, the green subaqueous light, gave it a dignity and a mysteriousness that did not belong to its daytime personality. The single boom that Rouse used swam in the shadows, and the liquid light of the mirrors under the gallery wavered at the far end in vague repetition.

Lucy longed to shout a command so as to hear her voice in this empty space; or to climb a rib-stall and see if she could do it without having heart-failure; but she contented herself with gazing. At her age gazing was enough; and it was a thing that she was good at.

Something winked on the floor half way between her and the boom; something tiny and bright. A nail-head or something, she thought; and then remembered that there were no nail-heads in a gymnasium floor. She moved forward, idly curious, and picked the thing up. It was a small filigree rosette, flat, and made of silvery metal; and as she put it absently into her jersey pocket and turned away to continue her walk, she smiled. If the quiver under her sternum this morning had reminded her of school days, that small metal circle brought back even more clearly the parties of her childhood. Almost before her conscious mind had recognised it for what it was she was back in the atmosphere of crackers-and-jellies and white silk frocks, and was wearing on her feet a pair of bronze leather pumps with elastic that criss-crossed over the ankle and a tiny silver filigree rosette on each toe. Going down the path to the field gate, she took it out again and smiled over it, remembering. She had quite forgotten those bronze pumps; there were black ones too, but all the best people wore bronze ones. She wondered who in College possessed a pair. College wore ballet shoes for dancing, with or without blocked toes; and their gymnasium shoes were welted leather with an elastic instep. She had never seen anyone wear those pumps with the little ornament at the toe.

Perhaps Rouse used them for running down to the gymnasium in the mornings. It was certainly this morning the ornament had been dropped, since The Abhorrence under Giddy’s direction was guaranteed to abstract from the gymnasium everything that was not nailed down.

She hung over the gate for a little but it was chilly there and disappointing; the trees were invisible in the mist, the buttercups a mere rust on the grey meadow, and the may hedges looked like dirty snow. She did not want to go back to the house before breakfast, so she walked along to the tennis courts where the Juniors were mending nets — this was odd-job day for everyone, they said, this being the one day in the year when they conserved their energies against a greater demand to come — and with them she stayed, talking and lending a hand, until they went up to College for breakfast. When they marvelled at her early rising little Miss Morris had suggested that she was tired of cold toast in her room, but when she said frankly that she could not sleep for excitement they were gratified by so proper an emotion in an alien breast, and promised that the reality would beggar expectation. She had not seen anything yet, it seemed.

She changed her wet shoes, suffered the friendly gibes of the assembled Staff at her access of energy, and went down with them to breakfast.

It was when she turned to see how Innes was looking this morning that she became aware of a gap in the pattern of bright heads. She did not know the pattern well enough to know who was missing, but there was certainly an empty place at one of the tables. She wondered if Henrietta knew. Henrietta had cast the usual critical eye over the assembly as she sat down, but as the assembly was also at that moment in the act of sitting down the pattern was blurred and any gap not immediately visible.

Hastily, in case Henrietta did not in fact know about that gap, she withdrew her gaze without further investigation. It was none of her wish to call down retribution on the head of any student, however delinquent. Perhaps, of course, someone had just “gone sick”; which would account for the lack of remark where their absence was concerned.

Miss Hodge, having wolfed her fish-cake, laid down her fork and swept the students with her small elephant eye. “Miss Wragg,” she said, “ask Miss Nash to speak to me.”

Nash got up from her place at the head of the nearest table and presented herself.

“Is it Miss Rouse who is missing from Miss Stewart’s table?”

“Yes, Miss Hodge.”

“Why has she not come to breakfast?”

“I don’t know, Miss Hodge.”

“Send one of the Juniors to her room to ask why she is not here.”

“Yes, Miss Hodge.”

A stolid amiable Junior called Tuttle, who was always having to take the can back, was sent on the mission, and came back to say that Rouse was not in her room; which report Beau bore to the head table.

“Where was Miss Rouse when you saw her last?”

“I can’t remember actually seeing her at all, Miss Hodge. We were all over the place this morning doing different things. It wasn’t like sitting in class or being in the gym.”

“Does anyone,” said Henrietta addressing the students as a whole, “know where Miss Rouse is?”

But no one did, apparently.

“Has anyone seen her this morning?”

But no one, now they came to think of it, had seen her.

Henrietta, who had put away two slices of toast while Tuttle was upstairs, said: “Very well, Miss Nash,” and Beau went back to her breakfast. Henrietta rolled up her napkin and caught Fröken’s eye, but Fröken was already rising from table, her face anxious.

“You and I will go to the gymnasium, Fröken,” Henrietta said, and they went out together, the rest of the Staff trailing after them but not following them out to the gymnasium. It was only on the way upstairs to make her bed that it occurred to Lucy to think: “I could have told them that she wasn’t in the gymnasium. How silly of me not to think of it.” She tidied her room — a task that the students were expected to perform for themselves and which she thought it only fair that she likewise should do for herself — wondering all the time where Rouse could have disappeared to. And why. Could she suddenly have failed again this morning to do that simple boom exercise and been overtaken by a crise des nerfs? That was the only explanation that would fit the odd fact of any College student missing a meal; especially breakfast.

She crossed into the “old house” and went down the front stairs and out into the garden. From the office came Henrietta’s voice talking rapidly to someone on the telephone, so she did not interrupt her. There was still more than half an hour before Prayers; she would spend it reading her mail in the garden, where the mist was rapidly lifting and a shimmer had come into the atmosphere that had been so dead a grey. She went to her favourite seat at the far edge of the garden overlooking the countryside, and it was not until nine o’clock that she came back. There was no doubt about the weather now: it was going to be a lovely day; Henrietta’s “tragedy” was not going to happen.

As she came round the corner of the house an ambulance drove away from the front door down the avenue. She looked at it, puzzled; but decided that in a place like this an ambulance was not the thing of dread that it was to the ordinary civilian. Something to do with the clinic, probably.

In the drawing-room, instead of the full Staff muster demanded by two minutes to nine o’clock, there was only Miss Lux.

“Has Rouse turned up?” Lucy asked.

“Yes.”

“Where was she?”

“In the gymnasium, with a fractured skull.”

Even in that moment of shock Lucy thought how typical of Lux that succinct sentence was. “But how? What happened?”

“The pin that holds up the boom wasn’t properly in. When she jumped up to it it came down on her head.”

“Good heavens!” Lucy could feel that inert log crash down on her own skull; she had always hated the boom.

“Fröken has just gone away with her in the ambulance to West Larborough.”

“That was smart work.”

“Yes. West Larborough is not far, and luckily at this hour of the morning the ambulance hadn’t gone out, and once it was on the way here there was no traffic to hold it up.”

“What dreadful luck for everyone. On Demonstration Day.”

“Yes. We tried to keep it from the students but that was hopeless, of course. So all we can do is to minimise it.”

“How bad is it, do you think?”

“No one knows. Miss Hodge has wired to her people.”

“Weren’t they coming to the Dem.?”

“Apparently not. She has no parents; just an aunt and uncle who brought her up. Come to think of it,” she added after a moment’s silence, “that is what she looked like: a stray.” She did not seem to notice that she had used the past tense.

“I suppose it was Rouse’s own fault?” Lucy asked.

“Or the student who helped her put up the thing last night.”

“Who was that?”

“O’Donnell, it seems. Miss Hodge has sent for her to ask her about it.”

At that moment Henrietta herself came in, and all the vague resentments that Lucy had been nursing against her friend in the last few days melted at sight of Henrietta’s face. She looked ten years older, and in some odd fashion at least a stone less heavy.

“They have a telephone, it seems,” she said, continuing the subject that was the only one in her mind, “so I shall be able to talk to them perhaps before the telegram reaches them. They are getting the trunk call for me now. They should be here before night. I want to be available for the telephone call, so will you take Prayers, Miss Lux. Fröken will not be back in time.” Fröken was, as Senior Gymnast, second in rank to Miss Hodge. “Miss Wragg may not be at Prayers; she is getting the gymnasium put to rights. But Madame will be there, and Lucy will back you up.”

“But of course,” said Lucy. “I wish there was something more that I could do.”

There was a tap at the door, and O’Donnell appeared.

“Miss Hodge? You wanted to see me?”

“Oh, in my office, Miss O’Donnell.”

“You weren’t there, so I—”

“Not that it matters, now that you are here. Tell me: when you put up the boom with Miss Rouse last night — It was you who helped her?”

“Yes, Miss Hodge.”

“When you put up the boom with her, which end did you take?”

There was a tense moment of silence. It was obvious that O’Donnell did not know which end of the boom had given way and that what she said in the next few seconds would either damn her or save her. But when she spoke it was with a sort of despairing resolution that stamped what she said with truth.

“The wall end, Miss Hodge.”

“You put the pin into the upright that is fixed to the wall?”

“Yes.”

“And Miss Rouse took care of the upright in the middle of the floor.”

“Yes, Miss Hodge.”

“You have no doubt as to which end you attended to?”

“No, none at all.”

“Why are you so certain?”

“Because I always did do the end by the wall.”

“Why was that?”

“Rouse is taller than I am and could shove the boom higher than I could. So I always took the end by the wall so that I could put a foot in the rib-stalls when I was putting the pin in.”

“I see. Very well. Thank you, Miss O’Donnell, for being so frank.”

O’Donnell turned to go, and then turned back.

“Which end came down, Miss Hodge?”

“The middle end,” Miss Hodge said, looking with something like affection on the girl, though she had been on the point of letting her go without putting her out of suspense.

A great wave of colour rushed into O’Donnell’s normally pale face. “Oh, thank you!” she said, in a whisper, and almost ran out of the room.

“Poor wretch,” said Lux. “That was a horrible moment for her.”

“It is most unlike Miss Rouse to be careless about apparatus,” Henrietta said thoughtfully.

“You are not suggesting that O’Donnell is not telling the truth?”

“No, no. What she said was obviously true. It was the natural thing for her to take the wall end where she would have the help of the rib-stalls. But I still cannot see how it happened. Apart from Miss Rouse’s natural carefulness, a pin would have to be very badly put in indeed for it to be so far not in that it let the boom come down. And the hoisting rope so slack that it let the boom fall nearly three feet!”

“I suppose Giddy couldn’t have done something to it accidentally?”

“I don’t know what he could have done to it. You can’t alter a pin put in at that height without stretching up deliberately to it. It is not as if it were something he might possibly touch with his apparatus. And much as he prides himself on the strength of The Abhorrence there is no suction that will pull a pin out from under a boom.”

“No.” Lux thought a little. “Vibration is the only kind of force that would alter a pin’s position. Some kind of tremor. And there was nothing like that.”

“Not inside the gymnasium, certainly. Miss Rouse locked it as usual last night and gave the key to Giddy, and he unlocked it just after first bell this morning.”

“Then there is no alternative to the theory that for once Rouse was too casual. She was the last to leave the place and the first to come back to it — you wouldn’t get anyone there at that hour of the morning who wasn’t under the direst compulsion — so the blame is Rouse’s. And let us be thankful for it. It is bad enough as it is, but it would be far worse if someone else had been careless and had to bear the knowledge that she was responsible for —”

The bell rang for Prayers, and downstairs the telephone shrilled in its own hysterical manner.

“Have you marked the place in the Prayer book?” Lux asked.

“Where the blue ribbon is,” Miss Hodge said, and hurried out to the telephone.

“Has Fröken not come back?” asked Madame, appearing in the doorway. “Ah, well, let us proceed. Life must go on, if I may coin a phrase. And let us hope that this morning’s ration of uplift is not too apposite. Holy Writ has a horrible habit of being apposite.”

Not for the first time, Lucy wished Madame Lefevre on a lonely island off Australia.

It was a silent and subdued gathering that awaited them, and Prayers proceeded in an atmosphere of despondency that was foreign and unprecedented. But with the hymn they recovered a little. It was Blake’s and had a fine martial swing, and they sang it with a will. So did Lucy.

“Nor shall the sword sleep in my hand,” she sang, making the most of it. And stopped suddenly, hit in the wind.

Hit in the wind by a jolt that left her speechless.

She had just remembered something. She had just remembered why she had been so sure that Rouse would not be found in the gymnasium. Rouse’s damp footprints had been visible on the concrete path, and so she had taken it for granted that Rouse had already been and gone. But Rouse had not been. Rouse had come later, and had sprung to the insecure boom and had lain there until after breakfast when she was searched for.

Then — whose footprints were they?

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