Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

18

As the guests moved out to the garden and the basket-chairs round the lawn, Lucy went with them, and while she was waiting to see if sufficient chairs had been provided before taking one for herself, she was seized upon by Beau, who said: “Miss Pym! There you are! I’ve been hunting for you. I want you to meet my people.”

She turned to a couple who were just sitting down and said: “Look, I’ve found Miss Pym at last.”

Beau’s mother was a very lovely woman; as lovely as the best beauty parlours and the most expensive hairdressers could make her — and they had good foundation to work on since when Mrs Nash was twenty she must have looked very like Beau. Even now, in the bright sunlight, she looked no older than thirty-five. She had a good dressmaker too, and bore herself with the easy friendly confidence of a woman who has been a beauty all her life; so used to the effect she had on people that she did not have to consider it at all and so her mind was free to devote itself to the person she happened to be meeting.

Mr Nash was obviously what is called an executive. A fine clear skin, a good tailor, a well-soaped look, and a general aura of mahogany tables with rows of clean blotters round them.

“I should be changing. I must fly,” said Beau, and disappeared.

As they sat down together Mrs Nash looked quizzically at Lucy and said: “Well, now that you are here in the flesh, Miss Pym, we can ask you something we are dying to know. We want to know how you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Impress Pamela.”

“Yes,” said Mr Nash, “that is just what we should like to know. All our lives we have been trying to make some impression on Pamela, but we remain just a couple of dear people who happen to be responsible for her existence and have to be humoured now and then.”

“Now you, it seems, are quite literally something to write home about,” Mrs Nash said, and raised an eyebrow and laughed.

“If it is any consolation to you,” Lucy offered, “I am greatly impressed by your daughter.”

“Pam is nice,” her mother said. “We love her very much; but I wish we impressed her more. Until you turned up no one has made any impression on Pamela since a Nanny she had at the age of four.”

“And that impression was a physical one,” Mr Nash volunteered.

“Yes. The only time in her life that she was spanked.”

“What happened?” Lucy asked.

“We had to get rid of the Nanny!”

“Didn’t you approve of spanking?”

“Oh yes, but Pamela didn’t.”

“Pam engineered the first sit-down strike in history,” Mr Nash said.

“She kept it up for seven days,” Mrs Nash said. “Short of going on dressing and forcibly feeding her for the rest of her life, there was nothing to do but get rid of Nanny. A first-rate woman she was, too. We were devastated to lose her.”

The music began, and in front of the high screen of the rhododendron thicket appeared the bright colours of the Junior’s Swedish folk dresses. Folk-dancing had begun. Lucy sat back and thought, not of Beau’s childish aberrations, but of Innes, and the way a black cloud of doubt and foreboding was making a mockery of the bright sunlight.

It was because her mind was so full of Innes that she was startled when she heard Mrs Nash say: “Mary, darling. There you are. How nice to see you again,” and turned to see Innes behind them. She was wearing boy’s things; the doublet and hose of the fifteenth century; and the hood that hid all her hair and fitted close round her face accentuated the bony structure that was so individual. Now that the eyes were shadowed and sunk a little in their always-deep sockets, the face had something it had not had before: a forbidding look. It was — what was the word? — a “fatal” face. Lucy remembered her very first impression that it was round faces like that that history was built.

“You have been overworking, Mary,” Mr Nash said, eyeing her.

“They all have,” Lucy said, to take their attention from her.

“Not Pamela,” her mother said. “Pam has never worked hard in her life.”

No. Everything had been served to Beau on a plate. It was miraculous that she had turned out so charming.

“Did you see me make a fool of myself on the boom?” Innes asked, in a pleasant conversational tone. This surprised Lucy, somehow; she had expected Innes to avoid the subject.

“My dear, we sweated for you,” Mrs Nash said. “What happened? Did you turn dizzy?”

“No,” said Beau, coming up behind them and slipping an arm into Innes’s, “that is just Innes’s way of stealing publicity. It is not inferior physical powers, but superior brains the girl has. None of us has the wit to think up a stunt like that.”

Beau gave the arm she was holding a small reassuring squeeze. She too was in boy’s clothes, and looked radiant; even the quenching of her bright hair had not diminished the glow and vivacity of her beauty.

“That is the last of the Junior’s efforts — don’t they look gay against that green background? — and now Innes and I and the rest of our put-upon set will entertain you with some English antics, and then you shall have tea to sustain you against the real dancing to come.”

And they went away together.

“Ah, well,” said Mrs Nash, watching her daughter go, “I suppose it is better than being seized with a desire to reform natives in Darkest Africa or something. But I wish she would have just stayed at home and been one’s daughter.”

Lucy thought that it was to Mrs Nash’s credit that, looking as young as she did, she wanted a daughter at home.

“Pam was always mad on gym. and games,” Mr Nash said. “There was no holding her. There never was any holding her, come to that.”

“Miss Pym,” said The Nut Tart, appearing at Lucy’s elbow, “do you mind if Rick sits with you while I go through this rigmarole with the Seniors?” She indicated Gillespie, who was standing behind her clutching a chair, and wearing his habitual expression of grave amusement.

The wide flat hat planked slightly to the back of her head on top of her wimple — Wife of Bath fashion — gave her an air of innocent astonishment that was delightful. Lucy and Rick exchanged a glance of mutual appreciation, and he smiled at her as he sat down on her other side.

“Isn’t she lovely in that get-up,” he said, watching Desterro disappear behind the rhododendrons.

“I take it that a rigmarole doesn’t count as dancing.”

“Is she good?”

“I don’t know. I have never seen her, but I understand she is.”

“I’ve never even danced ballroom stuff with her. Odd, isn’t it. I didn’t even know she existed until last Easter. It maddens me to think she has been a whole year in England and I didn’t know about it. Three months of odd moments isn’t very long to make any effect on a person like Teresa.”

“Do you want to make an effect?”

“Yes.” The monosyllable was sufficient.

The Seniors, in the guise of the English Middle Ages, ran out on to the lawn, and conversation lapsed. Lucy tried to find distraction in identifying legs and in marvelling over the energy with which those legs ran about after an hour of strenuous exercise. She said to herself: “Look, you have to go to Henrietta with the little rosette tonight. All right. That is settled. There is nothing you can do, either about the going or the result of the going. So put it out of your mind. This is the afternoon you have been looking forward to. It is a lovely sunny day, and everyone is pleased to see you, and you should be having a grand time. So relax. Even if — if anything awful happens about the rosette, it has nothing to do with you. A fortnight ago you didn’t know any of these people, and after you go away you will never see any of them again. It can’t matter to you what happens or does not happen to them.”

All of which excellent advice left her just where she was before. When she saw Miss Joliffe and the maids busy about the tea-table in the rear she was glad to get up and find some use for her hands and some occupation for her mind.

Rick, unexpectedly, came with her. “I’m a push-over for passing plates. It must be the gigolo in me.”

Lucy said that he ought to be watching his lady-love’s rigmaroles.

“It is the last dance. And if I know anything of my Teresa her appetite will take more appeasing than her vanity, considerable as it is.”

He seemed to know his Teresa very well, Lucy thought.

“Are you worried about something, Miss Pym?”

The question took her by surprise.

“Why should you think that?”

“I don’t know. I just got the impression. Is there anything I can do?”

Lucy remembered how on Sunday evening when she had nearly cried into the Bidlington rarebit he had known about her tiredness and tacitly helped her. She wished that she had met someone as understanding and as young and as beautiful as The Nut Tart’s follower when she was twenty, instead of Alan and his Adam’s apple and his holey socks.

“I have to do something that is right,” she said slowly, “and I’m afraid of the consequences.”

“Consequences to you?”

“No. To other people.”

“Never mind; do it.”

Miss Pym put plates of cakes on a tray. “You see, the proper thing is not necessarily the right thing. Or do I mean the opposite?”

“I’m not sure that I know what you mean at all.”

“Well — there are those awful dilemmas about whom would you save. You know. If you knew that by saving a person from the top of a snow slide you would start an avalanche that would destroy a village, would you do it? That sort of thing.”

“Of course I would do it.”

“You would?”

“The avalanche might bury a village without killing a cat — shall I put some sandwiches on that tray? — so you would be one life to the good.”

“You would always do the right thing, and let the consequences take care of themselves?”

“That’s about it.”

“It is certainly the simplest. In fact I think it’s too simple.”

“Unless you plan to play God, one has to take the simple way.”

“Play God? You’ve got two lots of tongue sandwiches there, do you know?”

“Unless you are clever enough to ‘see before and after’ like the Deity, it’s best to stick to rules. Wow! The music has stopped and here comes my young woman like a hunting leopard.” He watched Desterro come with a smile in his eyes. “Isn’t that hat a knock-out!” He looked down at Lucy for a moment. “Do the obvious right thing, Miss Pym, and let God dispose.”

“Weren’t you watching, Rick?” she heard Desterro ask, and then she and Rick and The Nut Tart were overwhelmed by a wave of Juniors come to do their duty and serve tea. Lucy extricated herself from the crush of white caps and Swedish embroidery, and found herself face to face with Edward Adrian, alone and looking forlorn.

“Miss Pym! You are just the person I wanted to see. Have you heard that —”

A Junior thrust a cup of tea into his hand, and he gave her one of his best smiles which she did not wait to see. At the same moment little Miss Morris, faithful even in the throes of a Dem., came up with tea and a tray of cakes for Lucy.

“Let us sit down, shall we?” Lucy said.

“Have you heard of the frightful thing that has happened?”

“Yes. It isn’t very often, I understand, that a serious accident happens. It is just bad luck that it should be Demonstration Day.”

“Oh, the accident, yes. But do you know that Catherine says she can’t come to Larborough tonight? This has upset things, she says. She must stay here. But that is absurd. Did you ever hear anything more absurd? If there has been some kind of upset that is all the more reason why she should be taken out of herself for a little. I have arranged everything. I even got special flowers for our table tonight. And a birthday cake. It’s her birthday next Wednesday.”

Lucy wondered if any other person within the bounds of Leys knew when Catherine Lux’s birthday was.

Lucy did her best to sympathise, but said gently that she saw Miss Lux’s point of view. After all, the girl was seriously injured, and it was all very worrying, and it would no doubt seem to her a little callous to go merrymaking in Larborough.

“But it isn’t merrymaking! It is just a quiet supper with an old friend. I really can’t see why because some student has had an accident she should desert an old friend. You talk to her, Miss Pym. You make her see reason.”

Lucy said she would do her best but could offer no hope of success since she rather shared Miss Lux’s ideas on the subject.

“You, too! Oh, my God!”

“I know it isn’t reasonable. It’s even absurd. But neither of us would be happy and the evening would be a disappointment and you don’t want that to happen? Couldn’t you have us tomorrow night instead?”

“No, I’m catching a train directly the evening performance is over. And of course, it being Saturday, I have a matinée. And anyhow, I’m playing Romeo at night and that wouldn’t please Cath at all. It takes her all her time to stand me in Richard III. Oh dear, the whole thing is absurd.”

“Cheer up,” Lucy said. “It stops short of tragedy. You will be coming to Larborough again, and you can meet as often as you like now that you know she is here.”

“I shall never get Catherine in that pliant mood again. Never. It was partly your doing, you know. She didn’t want to appear too much of a Gorgon in front of you. She was even going to come to see me act. Something she has never done before. I’ll never get her back to that point if she doesn’t come tonight. Do persuade her, Miss Pym.”

Lucy promised to try. “How are you enjoying your afternoon, apart from broken appointments?”

Mr Adrian was enjoying himself vastly, it appeared. He was not sure which to admire most: the students’ good looks or their efficiency.

“They have charming manners, too. I have not been asked for an autograph once, all the afternoon.”

Lucy looked to see if he was being ironic. But no; the remark was “straight.” He really could not conceive any reason for the lack of autograph hunters other than that of good manners. Poor silly baby, she thought, walking all his life through a world he knew nothing about. She wondered if all actors were like that. Perambulating spheres of atmosphere with a little actor safely cocooned at the heart of each. How nice it must be, so cushioned and safe from harsh reality. They weren’t really born at all; they were still floating in some pre-natal fluid.

“Who is the girl who fluffed at the balance exercise?”

Was she not going to get away from Innes for two minutes together?

“Her name is Mary Innes. Why?”

“What a wonderful face. Pure Borgia.”

“Oh, no!” Lucy said, sharply.

“I’ve been wondering all the afternoon what she reminded me of. I think it is a portrait of a young man by Giorgione, but which of his young men I wouldn’t know. I should have to see them again. Anyhow, it’s a wonderful face, so delicate and so strong, so good and so bad. Quite fantastically beautiful. I can’t imagine what anything so dramatic is doing at a girls’ Physical Training College in the twentieth century.”

Well, at least she had the consolation of knowing that someone else saw Innes as she did; exceptional, oddly fine, out of her century, and potentially tragic. She remembered that to Henrietta she was merely a tiresome girl who looked down her nose at people less well endowed with brains.

Lucy wondered what to offer Edward Adrian by way of distraction. She saw coming down the path a floppy satin bow-tie against a dazzling collar and recognized Mr Robb, the elocution master; the only member of the visiting Staff, apart from Dr Knight, that she knew. Mr Robb had been a dashing young actor forty years ago — the most brilliant Lancelot Gobbo of his generation, one understood — and she felt that to hoist Mr Adrian with his own petard would be rather pleasant. But being Lucy her heart softened at the thought of the wasted preparations he had made — the flowers, the cake, the plans for showing off — and she decided to be merciful. She saw O’Donnell, gazing from a discreet distance at her one-time hero, and she beckoned to her. Edward Adrian should have a real, authentic, dyed-in-the-wool fan to cheer him; and he need never know that she was the only one in College.

“Mr Adrian,” she said, “this is Eileen O’Donnell, one of your most devoted admirers.”

“Oh, Mr Adrian-” she heard O’Donnell begin.

And she left them to it.

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