Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

21

The morning was bleary and sodden, and Lucy regarded it with distaste. The waking-bell had sounded as usual at five-thirty, although on the morning after the Demonstration there were no classes before breakfast. College might make concessions but it did not discard its habits. She tried to fall asleep again, but reality had come with the daylight, and what had been feverish theory in the dark hours was now chill fact. In an hour or two she would have pressed that button, and altered beyond computing lives of whose existence she was not even aware. Her heart began to thud again.

Oh, dear, why had she ever come to this place!

It was when she had finished dressing and was sticking a few invisible hairpins into appropriate places that she realised that she could not go to Henrietta about the rosette without first going to Innes. She was not sure whether this was a remnant of some childish conception of “playing fair” or whether she was just trying to find a way of breaking the matter that would make her own personal responsibility less absolute.

She went to Innes’s door, quickly before the impulse to action should evaporate, and knocked. She had heard Innes come back from her bath and reckoned that by now she must be dressed.

The Innes who opened the door looked tired and heavy-eyed but composed. Now that she was face to face with her Lucy found it difficult to identify her with the Innes of her disturbed thoughts last night.

“Do you mind coming into my room for a moment?” she asked.

Innes hesitated, looked uncertain for a second, and then recovered herself. “Yes, of course,” she said; and followed Lucy.

“What a night of rain it was,” she said brightly.

It was unlike Innes to bother with remarks about the weather. And it was exceedingly unlike Innes to be bright.

Lucy took the little silver rosette out of her drawer and held it out on her palm for Innes to see.

“Do you know what that is?” she asked.

In a second the brightness had disappeared and Innes’s face was hard and wary.

“Where did you get that?” she snapped.

It was only then that Lucy realised how, deep down, she had counted on Innes’s reaction being different. How, unconsciously, she had expected Innes to say: “It looks like something off a dancing pump; lots of us have them.” Her heart stopped thudding and sank into her stomach.

“I found it on the gymnasium floor very early yesterday morning,” she said.

The hard wariness melted into a slow despair.

“And why do you show it to me?” Innes said dully.

“Because I understand that there is only one pair of those old-fashioned pumps in College.”

There was silence. Lucy laid the little object down on the table and waited.

“Am I wrong?” she asked at last.

“No.”

There was another silence.

“You don’t understand, Miss Pym,” she said in a burst, “it wasn’t meant to be ——. I know you’ll think I’m just trying to white-wash it, but it was never meant to be — to be the way it turned out. It was because I was so sick about missing Arlinghurst — I practically lost my reason over that for a time — I behaved like an idiot. It got so that I couldn’t think of anything in the world but Arlinghurst. And this was just to be a way of — of letting me have a second chance at it. It was never meant to be more than that. You must believe that. You must ——”

“But of course I believe it. If I didn’t I don’t suppose I should be sharing the knowledge of this with you.” She indicated the rosette.

After a moment Innes said: “What are you going to do?”

“Oh, dear God, I don’t know,” said poor Lucy, helpless now that she was face to face with reality. All the crimes she had met with were in slick detective stories where the heroine, however questionable, was invariably innocent, or in case-histories where the crime was safely over with and put away and a matter only for the scalpel. All those subjects of case-history record had had friends and relations whose stunned disbelief must have been very like her own, but the knowledge was neither comfort nor guide to her. This was the kind of thing that happened to other people — happened daily if one could believe the Press — but could not possibly happen to oneself.

How could one believe that someone one had laughed and talked with, liked and admired, shared a communal life with, could be responsible for another’s death?

She found herself beginning to tell Innes of her sleepless night, of her theories about “disposing,” of her reluctance to destroy half a dozen lives because of one person’s crime. She was too absorbed in her own problem to notice the dawning hope in Innes’s eyes. It was only when she heard herself saying: “Of course you cannot possibly be allowed to profit by Rouse’s death,” that she realised how far she had already come along the road that she had had no intention of travelling.

But Innes pounced on this. “Oh, but I won’t, Miss Pym. And it has nothing to do with your finding the little ornament. I knew last night when I heard that she was dead that I couldn’t go to Arlinghurst. I was going to tell Miss Hodge this morning. I was awake too last night. Facing a lot of things. Not only my responsibility for Rouse’s death — my inability to take defeat and like it. But — oh, well, a lot of things that wouldn’t interest you.” She paused a moment, considering Lucy. “Look, Miss Pym, if I were to spend the rest of my life atoning for yesterday morning will you — would you —” She could not put so brazen a suggestion into words, even after Lucy’s dissertation on justice.

“Become an accessory after the fact?”

The cold legality of the phrase discouraged Innes.

“No. I suppose it is too much to expect anyone to do. But I would atone, you know. It wouldn’t be any half-hearted affair. It would be my life for — hers. I would do it gladly.”

“I believe you, of course. But how do you plan to atone?”

“I thought of that last night. I began with leper colonies and things like that, but they were rather unreal and didn’t make much sense in connection with a Leys training. I have a better idea. I decided that I would work alongside my father. I hadn’t planned to do medical work, but I am good at it and there is no orthopaedic clinic in our home town.”

“It sounds admirable,” Lucy said, “but where is the penance?”

“My one ambition since I was a little girl has been to get away from living in a little market town; coming to Leys was my passport to freedom.”

“I see.”

“Believe me, Miss Pym, it would be penance. But it wouldn’t be a barren one. It wouldn’t be just personal flagellation. I would be doing something useful with my life, something that would — would make it good value for exchange.”

“Yes, I see.”

There was another long silence.

The five-minute bell rang, but for the first time since she came to Leys Lucy was unconscious of a bell.

“Of course you have nothing but my word for it —”

“I would accept your word.”

“Thank you.”

It seemed too easy a way out, she was thinking. If Innes was to be punished, the living of a dull and useful life hardly seemed a sufficient exaction. She had forfeited Arlinghurst of course; that would cost her something. But would it pay for a death?

What, in any case, would pay for a death? Except a death.

And Innes was offering what she obviously considered a living death. Perhaps after all it was not so poor an exchange.

What she, Lucy, was faced with was the fact that all her deliberations, her self-communing and comparing of arguments, fused at this moment into one single and simple issue: Was she going to condemn to death the girl who was standing in front of her?

It was, after all, as simple as that. If she took that little rosette to Henrietta this morning, Innes would die before the first students came back to Leys in the autumn. If she did not die she would spend her twenties in a living death that would indeed be “barren.”

Let her spend her years in the prison of her choice, where she could be useful to her fellows.

Certainly she, Lucy Pym, was quite unequal to the task of condemning her.

And that was that.

“I am entirely in your hands,” she said slowly to Innes, “because I am quite incapable of sending anyone to the gallows. I know what my plain duty is and I can’t do it.” Odd, she thought, that I should be in her reverence rather than she in mine.

Innes stared at her, doubtfully.

“You mean ——” Her tongue came out and ran along her dry lips. “You mean that you won’t tell about the rosette?”

“No. I shall never tell anyone.”

Innes went suddenly white.

So white that Lucy realised that this was a phenomenon that she had read about but never seen. “White as a sheet,” they said. Well, it was perhaps an unbleached sheet but it certainly was “going white.”

Innes put her hand out to the chair by the dressing-table and sat down abruptly. Seeing Lucy’s anxious expression she said: “It’s all right, I’m not going to faint. I’ve never fainted in my life. I’ll be all right in a minute.”

Lucy, who had been antagonised by her self-possession, her ready bargaining — Innes had been far too lucid on the subject, she felt — was seized with something like compunction. Innes had not after all been self-possessed. It had been the old story of emotion clamped down and taking a mean revenge when it found escape.

“Would you like a drink of water?” Lucy said, moving to the wash-basin.

“No, thank you, I’m all right. It’s just that for the last twenty-four hours I’ve been so afraid, and seeing that silver thing on your hand was the last straw, and then suddenly it is all over, you’ve let me buy a reprieve, and — and ——”

Sobs came up in her throat and choked the words. Great rending sobs without a single tear. She put her hands over her mouth to stop them, but they burst through and she covered her face and struggled for composure. It was no use. She put both arms on the desk with her head between them and sobbed her heart out.

And Lucy, looking at her, thought: Another girl would have begun with this. Would have used it as a weapon, a bid for my sympathy. But not Innes. Innes comes self-contained and aloof, offering hostages. Without the breakdown no one would have guessed that she was suffering. Her present abandonment was the measure of her previous torture.

The first low murmur of the gong began in a slow crescendo.

Innes heard it and struggled to her feet. “If you’ll forgive me,” she said, “I’ll go and dash some cold water on myself. That will stop it.”

Lucy thought it remarkable that a girl so racked with sobs that she could hardly speak should prescribe for herself with such detachment; as if she were another person from this hysterical individual who had taken possession of her and was making such an exhibition of herself.

“Yes, do,” Lucy said.

Innes paused with her hand on the door-knob.

“Some day I’ll be able to thank you properly,” she said, and disappeared.

Lucy dropped the little silver rosette into her pocket and went down to breakfast.

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