Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

3

At 2.41, when the afternoon fast train to London was pulling out of Larborough prompt to the minute, Miss Pym sat under the cedar on the lawn wondering whether she was a fool, and not much caring anyhow. It was very pleasant there in the sunlit garden. It was also very quiet, since Saturday afternoon was, it appeared, match afternoon, and College en masse was down at the cricket field playing Coombe, a rival establishment from the other side of the County. If they had nothing else, these young creatures, they had versatility. It was a far cry from the lining of the stomach to the placing of a cricket field, but they seemingly took it in their stride. Henrietta, coming into her bedroom after breakfast, had said that if she stayed over the week-end she would at least find it a new experience. “They are a very varied and lively crowd, and the work is very interesting.” And Henrietta had certainly been right. There was no moment when some new facet of this odd existence was not being presented to her. She had sat through luncheon at the Staff table, eating unidentifiable dishes that were “balanced” to a dietetic marvel, and making the closer acquaintance of the Staff. Henrietta sat in lonely state at the top of the table and gobbled her food in an abstracted silence. But Miss Lux was talkative. Miss Lux — angular, plain, and clever — was Mistress of Theory, and as befitted a lecturer on theory had not only ideas but opinions. Miss Wragg, on the other hand, the Junior Gymnast — big, bouncing, young, and pink — had apparently no ideas at all and her only opinions were reflections of Madame Lefevre’s. Madame Lefevre, the ballet mistress, spoke seldom, but when she did it was in a voice like dark brown velvet and no one interrupted her. At the bottom of the table, with her mother by her side, sat Fröken Gustavsen, the Senior Gymnast, who talked not at all.

It was to Fröken Gustavsen that Lucy found her eyes going during that lunch. There was a sly amusement in the handsome Swede’s clear pale eyes that Lucy found irresistible. The heavy Miss Hodge, the clever Miss Lux, the dumb Miss Wragg, the elegant Madame Lefevre — what did they all look like through the eyes of a tall pale enigma from Sweden?

Now, having spent lunch wondering about a Swede, she was waiting the advent of a South American. “Desterro doesn’t play games,” Henrietta had said, “so I’ll send her to keep you company this afternoon.” Lucy had not wanted anyone to keep her company — she was used to her own company and liked it — but the thought of a South American at an English college of physical training teased her. And when Nash, running into her after lunch, had said: “I’m afraid you’re going to be deserted this afternoon, if you don’t care for cricket,” another Senior passing in the crush had said: “It’s all right, Beau, The Nut Tart is going to look after her.” “Oh, good,” Beau had said, apparently so accustomed to the nickname that it had ceased to have either meaning or oddity for her.

But Lucy looked forward to meeting a Nut Tart, and sitting in the sunlit garden digesting the dietetic marvels she pondered the name. “Nut” was Brazil, perhaps. It was also the modern slang for “dippy” or “daft,” she believed. But “tart”? Surely not!

A Junior, running past her on the way to the bicycle shed, flashed her a smile, and she remembered that they had met in the corridor that morning. “Did you get George back safely?” she called after her.

“Yes, thank you,” beamed little Miss Morris, pausing to dance on one toe, “but I think I’m in a different sort of trouble now. You see, I had my arm round George’s waist, sort of steadying him after hanging him up, when Miss Lux came in. I’ll never be able to explain away that, I’m afraid.”

“Life is difficult,” agreed Lucy.

“However, I think I really do know my insertions now,” called little Miss Morris, speeding away over the grass.

Nice children, thought Miss Pym. Nice, clean, healthy children. It was really very pleasant here. That smudge on the horizon was the smoke of Larborough. There would be another smudge like that over London. It was much better to sit here where the air was bright with sun and heavy with roses, and be given friendly smiles by friendly young creatures. She pushed her plump little feet a little further away from her, approved the Georgian bulk of the “old house” that glowed in the sunlight across the lawn, regretted the modern brick wings that made a “Mary Ann” back to it, but supposed that as modern blocks go the Leys ensemble was pleasant enough. Charmingly proportioned lecture-rooms in the “old house,” and neat modern little bedrooms in the wings. An ideal arrangement. And the ugly bulk of the gymnasium decently hidden behind all. Before she went away on Monday she must see the Seniors go through their gym. There would be a double pleasure in that for her. The pleasure of watching experts trained to the last fine hair of perfection, and the ineffable pleasure of knowing that never, never as long as she lived, would she herself have to climb a rib-stall again.

Round the corner of the house, as she gazed, came a figure in a flowered silk dress and a plain, wide-brimmed shady hat. It was a slim, graceful figure; and watching it come Lucy realised that she had unconsciously pictured the South American plump and over-ripe. She also realised where the “tart” came from, and smiled. The outdoor frocks of the austere young students of Leys would not be flowered; neither would they be cut so revealingly; and never, oh never, would their hats be broad-brimmed and shady.

“Good afternoon, Miss Pym. I am Teresa Desterro. I am so sorry that I missed your lecture last night. I had a class in Larborough.” Desterro took off her hat with a leisurely and studied grace, and dropped to the grass by Lucy’s side in one continuous smooth movement. Everything about her was smooth and fluid: her voice, her drawling speech, her body, her movements, her dark hair, her honey-brown eyes.

“A class?”

“A dancing class; for shop girls. So earnest; so precise; so very bad. They will give me a box of chocolates next week because it is the last class of the season, and because they like me, and because it is after all the custom; and I shall feel like a crook. It is false pretences. No one could teach them to dance.”

“I expect they enjoy themselves. Is it usual? I mean, for students to take outside classes?”

“But we all do, of course. That is how we get practice. At schools, and convents, and clubs, and that sort of thing. You do not care for cricket?”

Lucy, rousing herself to this swift change of subject, explained that cricket was only possible to her in the company of a bag of cherries. “How is it that you don’t play?”

“I don’t play any games. To run about after a little ball is supremely ridiculous. I came here for the dancing. It is a very good dancing college.”

But surely, Lucy said, there were ballet schools in London of an infinitely higher standard than anything obtainable at a college of physical training.

“Oh, for that one has to begin young, and to have a métier. Me, I have no métier, only a liking.”

“And will you teach, then, when you go back to — Brazil, is it?”

“Oh, no; I shall get married,” said Miss Desterro simply. “I came to England because I had an unhappy love affair. He was r-r-ravishing, but qu-ite unsuitable. So I came to England to get over it.”

“Is your mother English, perhaps?”

“No, my mother is French. My grandmother is English. I adore the English. Up to here”— she lifted a graceful hand, wrist properly leading, and laid it edge-wise across her neck —“they are full of romance, and from there up, plain horse sense. I went to my grandmother, and I cried all over her best silk chairs, and I said “What shall I do? What shall I do?” About my lover, you understand. And she said: “You can blow your nose and get out of the country.” So I said I would go to Paris and live in a garret and paint pictures of an eye and a seashell sitting on a plate. But she said: “You will not. You will go to England and sweat a bit.” So, as I always listen to my grandmother, and since I like dancing and am very good at it, I came here. To Leys. They looked a little sideways on me at first when I said I wanted just to dance —”

This is what Lucy had been wondering. How did this charming “nut” find a welcome in this earnest English college, this starting-place of careers?

“— but one of the students had broken down in the middle of her training — they often do, and do you wonder? — and that left a vacant place in the scheme, which was not so nice, so they said: ‘Oh, well, let this crazy woman from Brazil have Kenyon’s room and allow her to come to the classes. It will not do any harm and it will keep the books straight.’”

“So you began as a Senior?”

“For dancing, yes. I was already a dancer, you understand. But I took Anatomy with the Juniors. I find bones interesting. And to other lectures I went as I pleased. I have listened to all subjects. All but plumbing. I find plumbing indecent.”

Miss Pym took “plumbing” to be Hygiene. “And have you enjoyed it all?”

“It has been a li-beral education. They are very naive, the English girls. They are like little boys of nine.” Noticing the unbelieving smile on Miss Pym’s face: there was nothing naive about Beau Nash. “Or little girls of eleven. They have ‘raves.’ You know what a ‘rave’ is?” Miss Pym nodded. “They swoon if Madame Lefevre says a kind word to them. I swoon, too, but it is from surprise. They save up their money to buy flowers for Fröken, who thinks of nothing but a Naval Officer in Sweden.”

“How do you know that?” asked Lucy, surprised.

“He is on her table. In her room. His photograph, I mean. And she is Continental. She does not have ‘raves.’”

“The Germans do,” Lucy pointed out. “They are famous for it.”

“An ill-balanced people,” said Desterro, dismissing the Teutonic race. “The Swedes are not like that.”

“All the same, I expect she likes the little offerings of flowers.”

“She does not, of course, throw them out of the window. But I notice she likes better the ones who do not bring her offerings.”

“Oh? There are some who do not have ‘raves,’ then?”

“Oh, yes. A few. The Scots, for instance. We have two.” She might have been talking of rabbits. “They are too busy quarrelling to have any spare emotions.”

“Quarrelling? But I thought the Scots stuck together the world over.”

“Not if they belong to different winds.”

Winds?

“It is a matter of climate. We see it very much in Brazil. A wind that goes ‘a-a-a-ah’” [she opened her red mouth and expelled a soft insinuating breath] “makes one kind of person. But a wind that goes ‘s-s-s-s-ss’” [she shot the breath viciously out through her teeth] “makes another person altogether. In Brazil it is altitude, in Scotland it is West Coast and East Coast. I observed it in the Easter holidays, and so understood about the Scots. Campbell has a wind that goes ‘a-a-a-ah,’ and so she is lazy, and tells lies, and has much charm that is all of it quite synthetic. Stewart has a wind that goes ‘s-s-s-s-ss,’ so she is honest, and hardworking, and has a formidable conscience.”

Miss Pym laughed. “According to you, the east coast of Scotland must be populated entirely by saints.”

“There is also some personal reason for the quarrel, I understand. Something about abused hospitality.”

“You mean that one went home with the other for holidays and — misbehaved?” Visions of vamped lovers, stolen spoons, and cigarette burns on the furniture, ran through Lucy’s too vivid imagination.

“Oh, no. It happened more than two hundred years ago. In the deep snow, and there was a massacre.” Desterro did full justice to the word “massacre.”

At this Lucy really laughed. To think that the Campbells were still engaged in living down Glencoe! A narrow-minded race, the Celts.

She sat so long considering the Celts that The Nut Tart turned to look up at her. “Have you come to use us as specimens, Miss Pym?”

Lucy explained that she and Miss Hodge were old friends and that her visit was a holiday one. “In any case,” she said, kindly, “I doubt whether as a specimen a Physical Training Student is likely to be psychologically interesting.”

“No? Why?”

“Oh, too normal and too nice. Too much of a type.”

A faint amusement crossed Desterro’s face; the first expression it had shown so far. Unexpectedly, this stung Lucy; as if she too had been found guilty of being naive.

“You don’t agree?”

“I am trying to think of someone — some Senior — who is normal. It is not easy.”

“Oh, come!”

“You know how they live here. How they work. It would be difficult to go through their years of training here and be quite normal in their last term.”

“Do you suggest that Miss Nash is not normal?”

“Oh, Beau. She is a strong-minded creature, and so has suffered less, perhaps. But would you call her friendship for Innes quite normal? Nice, of course,” Desterro added hastily, “quite irreproachable. But normal, no. That David and Jonathan relationship. It is a very happy one, no doubt, but it”— Desterro waved her arm to summon an appropriate word —“it excludes so much. The Disciples are the same, only there are four of them.”

“The Disciples?”

“Mathews, Waymark, Lucus, and Littlejohn. They have come up the College together because of their names. And now, believe me, my dear Miss Pym, they think together. They have the four rooms in the roof”— she tilted her head to the four dormer windows in the roof of the wing —“and if you ask any one of them to lend you a pin she says: ‘We have not got one.’”

“Well, there is Miss Dakers. What would you say was wrong with Miss Dakers?”

“Arrested development,” said Miss Desterro dryly.

“Nonsense!” said Lucy, determined to assert herself. “A happy, simple, uncomplicated human being, enjoying herself and the world. Quite normal.”

The Nut Tart smiled suddenly, and her smile was frank and unstudied. “Very well, Miss Pym, I give you Dakers. But I remind you that it is their last term, this. And so everything is e-norrrmously exaggerated. Everyone is just the least little bit insane. No, it is true, I promise you. If a student is frightened by nature, then she is a thousand times more frightened this term. If she is ambitious, then her ambition becomes a passion. And so on.” She sat up to deliver herself of her summing-up. “It is not a normal life they lead. You cannot expect them to be normal.”

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