Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

4

“You cannot expect them to be normal,” repeated Miss Pym to herself, sitting in the same place on Sunday afternoon and looking at the crowd of happy and excessively normal young faces clustered below her on the grass. Her eye ran over them with pleasure. If none of them was distinguished, at least none of them was mean. Nor was there any trace of morbidity, nor even of exhaustion, in their sunburnt alertness. These were the survivors of a gruelling course — that was admitted even by Henrietta — and it seemed to Miss Pym that the rigours might perhaps have been justified if the residue were of such excellence.

She was amused to note that the Disciples, by much living together, had begun to look vaguely alike — as husband and wife often do, however different their features. They all seemed to have the same round face with the same expression of pleased expectancy; it was only later that one noticed differences of build and colouring.

She was also amused to observe that the Thomas who slept was most undeniably Welsh; a small, dark aborigine. And that O’Donnell, who had now materialised from a voice in the bath, was equally unmistakably an Irishwoman; the long lashes, the fine skin, the wide grey eyes. The two Scots — separated by the furthest possible distance that still allowed them to be part of the group — were less obvious. Stewart was the red-haired girl cutting up cake from one of the plates that lay about on the grass. (“It’s from Crowford’s,” she was saying, in a pleasant Edinburgh voice, “so you poor creatures who know nothing but Buzzards will have a treat for a change!”) Campbell, propped against the bole of the cedar, and consuming bread-and-butter with slow absorption, had pink cheeks and brown hair and a vague prettiness.

Apart from Hasselt, who was the girl with the flat, calm, early-Primitive face and who was South African, the rest of the Seniors were, as Queen Elizabeth said, “mere English.”

The only face that approached distinction, as opposed to good looks, was that of Mary Innes, Beau Nash’s Jonathan. This pleased Miss Pym in an odd fashion. It was fitting, she felt, that Beau should have chosen for friend someone who had quality as well as looks. Not that Innes was particularly good-looking. Her eyebrows, low over her eyes, gave her face an intensity, a brooding expression, that robbed her fine bones of the beauty they might have had. Unlike Beau, who was animated and smiled easily, she was quiet and so far Miss Pym had not seen her smile, although they had had what amounted in the milieu to a lengthy conversation. That was last night, when Miss Pym was undressing after having spent the evening in the company of the Staff. There had come a knock on her door, and Beau had said: “I just came to see if you had everything you want. And to introduce you to your next-door neighbour, Mary Innes. Any time you want to be rescued, Innes will see to it.” And Beau had said good-night and gone away, leaving Innes to finish the interview. Lucy had found her attractive and very intelligent, but just a shade disconcerting. She did not bother to smile if she was not amused, and though friendly and at her ease made no effort to be entertaining. In the academic and literary circles that Lucy had recently frequented this would not have been remarkable, but in the gay over-accented college world it had the effect almost of a rebuff. Almost. There was certainly nothing of rebuff in Innes’s interest in her book — the Book — and in herself.

Looking at her now, sitting in the cedar shade, Lucy wondered if it were just that Mary Innes did not find life very amusing. Lucy had long prided herself on her analysis of facial characteristics, and was beginning nowadays to bet rather heavily on them. She had never, for instance, come across eyebrows beginning low over the nose and ending high up at the outer end without finding that their owner had a scheming, conniving mind. And someone — Jan Gordon, was it? — had observed that of the crowd round a park orator it was the long-nosed people who stayed to listen and the short-nosed people who walked away. So now, looking at Mary Innes’s level eyebrows and firm mouth, she wondered whether the concentration of purpose they showed had forbidden any compensating laughter. It was in some way not a contemporary face at all. It was — was what?

An illustration from a history book? A portrait in a gallery?

Not, anyhow, the face of a games mistress at a girls’ school. Definitely not. It was round faces like Mary Innes’s that history was built.

Of all the faces turning to her so constantly and turning away with chatter and badinage, only two were not immediately likeable. One was Campbell’s; too pliant, too soft-mouthed, too ready to be all things to all men. The other belonged to a girl called Rouse; and was freckled, and tight-lipped, and watchful.

Rouse had come late to the tea-party, and her advent had caused an odd momentary silence. Lucy was reminded of the sudden stillness that falls on chattering birds when a hawk hovers. But there was nothing deliberate about the silence; no malice. It was as if they had paused in their talk to note her arrival, but had none of them cared sufficiently to welcome her into their own particular group.

“I’m afraid I’m late,” she had said. And in the momentary quiet Lucy had caught the monosyllabic comment: “Swot!”, and had concluded that Miss Rouse had not been able to drag herself away from her text-books. Nash had introduced her, and she had dropped to the grass with the rest, and the interrupted conversations flowed on. Lucy, always sympathetic to the odd-man-out, had caught herself being sorry for the latecomer; but a further inspection of Miss Rouse’s North–Country features had convinced her that she was wasting good emotion. If Campbell, pink and pretty, was too pliant to be likeable, then Rouse was her complement. Nothing but a bull-dozer, Lucy felt, would make an impression on Miss Rouse.

“Miss Pym, you haven’t had any of my cake,” said Dakers, who, quite unabashed, had appropriated Lucy as an old acquaintance, and was now sitting propped against her chair, her legs straight out in front of her like a doll’s.

“Which is yours?” asked Lucy, eyeing the various tuck-box products, which stood out from the college bread-and-butter and “Sunday” buns like Creed suits at a country fair.

Dakers’ contribution, it seemed, was the chocolate sandwich with the butter icing. Lucy decided that for friendship’s sake (and a little for greed) she would forget her weight this once.

“Do you always bring your own cakes to Sunday tea?”

“Oh, no, this is in your honour.”

Nash, sitting on her other side, laughed. “What you see before you, Miss Pym, is a collection of skeletons out of cupboards. There is no physical training student who is not a Secret Eater.”

“There has been no moment in my whole college career, my dears, when I wasn’t sick with hunger. Only shame makes me stop eating at breakfast, and half an hour afterwards I’m hungry enough to eat the horse in the gym.”

“That is why our only crime is —” Rouse was beginning, when Stewart kicked her so hard in the back that she almost fell forward.

“We have spread our dreams under your feet,” mocked Nash, covering Rouse’s broken sentence. “And a fine rich carpet of carbohydrate they are, to be sure.”

“We also had a solemn conclave as to whether we ought to dress for you,” said Dakers, cutting up chocolate sandwich for the others and unaware that there had been any gaffe in the offing. “But we decided that you didn’t look very particular.” As this raised a laugh, she added hastily, “In the very nicest sense, I mean. We thought you would like us as we are.”

They were wearing all sorts of garments; as the taste of the wearer or the need of the moment dictated. Some were in shorts, some in blue linen games tunics, some in washing-silk dresses of suitably pastel shades. There were no flowered silks; Desterro was taking tea with the nuns of a convent in Larborough.

“Besides,” said Gage, who looked like a Dutch doll and who was the dark head that appeared at a courtyard window at five-thirty yesterday morning and prayed someone to throw something at Thomas and so put a period to the wails of Dakers, “besides, much as we would like to do you honour, Miss Pym, every moment counts with our finals so oppressively near. Even a quick-change artist like a P.T. Senior needs five full minutes to achieve Sunday-bests, and by accepting us in our rags you have contributed”— she paused to count the gathering and do some mental arithmetic —“you have contributed one hour and twenty minutes to the sum of human knowledge.”

“You can subtract my five minutes from that, my dear,” said Dakers, licking a protuberant piece of butter-icing into safety with an expert tongue. “I’ve spent the whole afternoon doing the cortex of the brain, and the only result is a firm conviction that I personally haven’t got a cortex.”

“You must have a cortex,” said Campbell, the literal-minded Scot, in a Glasgow drawl like syrup sliding from a spoon. But no one took any notice of this contribution to the obvious.

“Personally,” said O’Donnell, “I think the vilest part of physiology are the villi. Imagine drawing cross-sections of something that has seven different parts and is less than a twentieth of an inch high!”

“But do you have to know the human structure in such detail?” asked Lucy.

“On Tuesday morning we do,” said the Thomas who slept. “After that we can forget it for the rest of our lives.”

Lucy, remembering the Monday morning visit to the gymnasium which she had promised herself, wondered if physical work ceased during Final Examinations week. Oh, no, they assured her. Not with the Dem. only a fortnight ahead. The Demonstration, she was given to understand, ranked only a short head behind Final Examinations as a hazard.

“All our parents come,” said one of the Disciples, “and —”

“The parents of all of us, she means,” put in a fellow Disciple.

“— and people from rival colleges, and all the —”

“All the civic swells of Larborough,” put in a third. It seemed that when one Disciple burst into speech the others followed automatically.

“And all the County big-wigs,” finished the fourth.

“It’s murder,” said the first, summing it up for them.

“I like the Dem.,” said Rouse. And again that odd silence fell.

Not inimical. Merely detached. Their eyes went to her, and came away again, expressionlessly. No one commented on what she had said. Their indifference left her marooned in the moment.

“I think it’s fun to show people what we can do,” she added, a hint of defence in her tone.

They let that pass too. Never before had Lucy met that negative English silence in its full perfection; in its full cruelty. Her own edges began to curl up in sympathy.

But Rouse was less easily shrivelled. She was eyeing the plates before her, and putting out her hand for something to eat. “Is there any tea left in the pot?” she asked.

Nash bent forward to the big brown pot, and Stewart took up the talk from where the Disciples had left it.

“What really is murder is waiting to see what you pull out of the Post lottery.”

“Post?” said Lucy. “You mean jobs? But why a lottery? You know what you apply for, surely?”

“Very few of us need to apply,” Nash explained, pouring very black tea. “There are usually enough applications from schools to go round. Places that have had Leys gymnasts before just write to Miss Hodge when they have a vacancy and ask her to recommend someone. If it happens to be a very senior or responsible post, she may offer it to some Old Student who wants a change. But normally the vacancies are filled from Leaving Students.”

“And a very fine bargain they get,” said a Disciple.

“No one works so hard as a First–Poster does,” said a second.

“For less money,” supplemented a third.

“Or with a better grace,” said a fourth.

“So you see,” Stewart said, “the most agonising moment of the whole term is when you are summoned to Miss Hodge’s room and told what your fate is going to be.”

“Or when your train is pulling out of Larborough and you haven’t been summoned at all!” suggested Thomas, who evidently had visions of being engulfed, jobless, by her native mountains again.

Nash sat back on her heels and smiled at Lucy. “It is not nearly as grim as it sounds. Quite a few of us are provided for already and so are not in the competition at all. Hasselt, for instance, is going back to South Africa to work there. And the Disciples en masse have chosen medical work.”

“We are going to start a clinic in Manchester,” explained one.

“A very rheumaticky place.”

“Full of deformities.”

“And brass”— supplemented the other three automatically.

Nash smiled benevolently on them. “And I am going back to my old school as Games Coach. And the Nut — and Desterro, of course, doesn’t want a post. So there aren’t so many of us to find places for.”

“I won’t even be qualified if I don’t go back to the liver pretty soon,” Thomas said, her beady brown eyes blinking in the sun. “What a way to spend a summer evening.”

They shifted their positions lazily, as if in protest, and fell to chatter again. But the reminder pricked them, and one by one they began to gather up their belongings and depart, trailing slowly across the sunlit grass like disconsolate children. Until presently Lucy found herself alone with the smell of the roses, and the murmur of insects, and the hot shimmer of the sunlit garden.

For half an hour she sat, in great beatitude, watching the slow shadow of the tree creep out from her feet. Then Desterro came back from Larborough; strolling slowly up the drive with a Rue de la Paix elegance that was odd after Lucy’s hour of tumbled youth at tea. She saw Miss Pym, and changed her direction.

“Well,” she said, “did you have a profitable afternoon?”

“I wasn’t looking for profit,” said Lucy, faintly tart. “It was one of the happiest afternoons I have ever spent.”

The Nut Tart stood contemplating her.

“I think you are a very nice person,” she said irrelevantly, and moved away, leisurely, to the house.

And Lucy suddenly felt very young, and didn’t like the feeling at all. How dared a chit in a flowered frock make her feel inexperienced and foolish!

She rose abruptly and went to find Henrietta and be reminded that she was Lucy Pym, who had written The Book, and lectured to learned societies, and had her name in Who’s Who, and was a recognised authority on the working of the Human Mind.

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