Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

5

“What is the college crime?” she asked Henrietta, as they went upstairs after supper. They had paused by the big fan-lighted window on the landing to look down on the little quadrangle, letting the others precede them up to the drawing-room.

“Using the gymnasium as a short cut to the field-path,” Henrietta said promptly.

“No, I mean real crime.”

Henrietta turned to look at her sharply. After a moment she said: “My dear Lucy, when a human being works as hard as these girls do, it has neither the spare interest to devise a crime nor the energy to undertake it. What made you think of that subject?”

“Something someone said at tea this afternoon. About their ‘only crime.’ It was something to do with being perpetually hungry.”

“Oh, that!” Henrietta’s brow cleared. “Food pilfering. Yes, we do now and then have that. In any community of this size there is always someone whose power of resisting temptation is small.”

“Food from the kitchen, you mean?”

“No, food from the students’ own rooms. It is a Junior crime, and usually disappears spontaneously. It is not a sign of vice, you know. Merely of a weak will. A student who would not dream of taking money or a trinket can’t resist a piece of cake. Especially if it is sweet cake. They use up so much energy that their bodies are crying out for sugar; and though there is no limit to what they may eat at table they are for ever hungry.”

“Yes, they do work very hard. What proportion of any one set finishes the course, would you say?”

“Of this lot”— Henrietta nodded down to where a group of Seniors were strolling out across the courtyard to the lawn —“eighty per cent are finishing. That is about average. Those who fall by the wayside do it in their first term, or perhaps their second.”

“But not all, surely. There must be accidents in a life like this.”

“Oh, yes, there are accidents.” Henrietta turned and began to climb the further flight.

“That girl whose place Teresa Desterro took, was it an accident that overtook her?”

“No,” said Henrietta shortly, “she had a breakdown.”

Lucy, climbing the shallow steps in the wake of her friend’s broad beam, recognised the tone. It was the tone in which Henrietta, the head-girl, used to say: “And see that no goloshes are left lying about the cloakroom floor.” It did not permit of further discussion.

Henrietta, it was to be understood, did not like to think of her beloved College as a Moloch. College was a bright gateway to the future for deserving youth; and if one or two found the gateway a hazard rather than an opening, then it was unfortunate but no reflection on the builders of the gateway.

“Like a convent,” Nash had said yesterday morning. “No time to think of an outside world.” That was true. She had watched a day’s routine go by. She had also seen the Students’ two daily papers lying unopened in the common-room last night as they went in to supper. But a nunnery, if it was a narrow world, was also a placid one. Uncompetitive. Assured. There was nothing of the nunnery about this over-anxious, wildly strenuous life. Only the self-absorption was the same; the narrowness.

And yet was it so narrow, she wondered, considering the gathering in the drawing-room? If this were any other kind of college that gathering would have been homogeneous. If it were a college of science the gathering would consist of scientists; if it were a college of divinity, of theologians. But in this long charming room, with its good “pieces” and its chintzes, with its tall windows pushed up so that the warm evening flowed in through them full of grass and roses, in this one room many worlds met. Madame Lefevre, reclining in thin elegance on a hard Empire sofa and smoking a yellow cigarette in a green holder, represented a world theatrical; a world of grease-paint, art, and artifice. Miss Lux, sitting upright in a hard chair, represented the academical world; the world of universities, text-books, and discussion. Young Miss Wragg, busy pouring out coffee, was the world of sport; a physical, competitive, unthinking world. And the evening’s guest Dr Enid Knight, one of the “visiting” Staff, stood for the medical world. The foreign world was not present: Sigrid Gustavsen had retired with her mother, who spoke no English, to her own room where they could chatter together in Swedish.

All these worlds had gone to make the finished article that was a Leaving Student; it was at least not the training that was narrow.

“And what do you think of our students, Miss Pym, now that you have had a whole afternoon with them?” Madame Lefevre asked, turning the battery of her enormous dark eyes on Lucy.

A damn silly question, thought Lucy; and wondered how a good respectable middle-class English couple had produced anything so like the original serpent as Madame Lefevre. “I think,” she said, glad to be able to be honest, “that there is not one of them who is not an advertisement for Leys.” And she saw Henrietta’s heavy face light up. College was Henrietta’s world. She lived and moved and had her being in the affairs of Leys; it was her father, mother, lover, and child.

“They are a nice lot,” agreed Doreen Wragg happily, not yet far removed from her own student days and regarding her pupils with cameraderie.

“They are as the beasts that perish,” said Miss Lux incisively. “They think that Botticelli is a variety of spaghetti.” She inspected with deep gloom the coffee that Miss Wragg handed to her. “If it comes to that, they don’t know what spaghetti is. It’s not long since Dakers stood up in the middle of a Dietetics lecture and accused me of destroying her illusions.”

“It surprises me to know that anything about Miss Dakers is destructible,” observed Madame Lefevre, in her brown velvet drawl.

“What illusion had you destroyed?” the young doctor asked from the window-seat.

“I had just informed them that spaghetti and its relations were made from a paste of flour. That shattered for ever, apparently, Dakers’ picture of Italy.”

“How had she pictured it?”

“Fields of waving macaroni, so she said.”

Henrietta turned from putting two lumps of sugar in a very small cup of coffee (How nice, thought Lucy wistfully, to have a figure like a sack of flour and not to mind!) and said: “At least they are free from crime.”

“Crime?” they said, puzzled.

“Miss Pym has just been enquiring about the incidence of crime at Leys. That is what it is to be a psychologist.”

Before Lucy could protest against this version of her simple search for knowledge, Madame Lefevre said: “Well, let us oblige her. Let us turn out the rag-bag of our shameful past. What crime have we had?”

“Farthing was had up last Christmas term for riding her bike without lights,” volunteered Miss Wragg.

“Crime,” said Madame Lefevre. “Crime. Not petty misdemeanours.”

“If you mean a plain wrong-un, there was that dreadful creature who was man-crazy and used to spend Saturday evenings hanging round the barrack gate in Larborough.”

“Yes,” said Miss Lux, remembering. “What became of her when we tossed her out, does anyone know?”

“She is doing the catering at a Seamen’s Refuge in Plymouth,” Henrietta said, and opened her eyes when they laughed. “I don’t know what is funny about that. The only real crime we have had in ten years, as you very well know, was the watches affair. And even that,” she added, jealous for her beloved institution, “was a fixation rather than plain theft. She took nothing but watches, and she made no use of them. Kept them all in a drawer of her bureau, quite openly. Nine, there were. A fixation, of course.”

“By precedent, I suppose she is now with the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths,” said Madame Lefevre.

“I don’t know,” said Henrietta, seriously. “I think her people kept her at home. They were quite well-to-do.”

“Well, Miss Pym, the incidence appears to be point-something per cent.” Madame Lefevre waved a thin brown hand. “We are an unsensational crowd.”

“Too normal by half,” Miss Wragg volunteered. “A little spot of scandal would be nice now and again. A nice change from hand-stands and upward-circlings.”

“I should like to see some hand-stands and upward-circlings,” Lucy said. “Would it be all right if I came and watched the Seniors tomorrow morning?”

But of course she must see the Seniors, Henrietta said. They were busy with their Demonstration programme, so it would be a private Demonstration all for herself. “They are one of the best sets we ever had,” she said.

“Can I have first go of the gym. when the Seniors are doing their Final Phys. on Tuesday?” Miss Wragg asked; and they began to discuss time-tables.

Miss Pym moved over to the window-seat and joined Dr Knight.

“Are you responsible for the cross-section of something called the villi?” she asked.

“Oh, no; physiology is an ordinary college subject: Catherine Lux takes that.”

“Then what do you lecture on?”

“Oh, different things at different stages. Public Health. The so-called ‘social’ diseases. The even more so-called Facts of Life. Your subject.”

“Psychology?”

“Yes. Public Health is my job, but psychology is my specialty. I liked your book so much. So common sensical. I admired that. It is so easy to be high-falutin about an abstract subject.”

Lucy flushed a little. There is no praise so gratifying as that of a colleague.

“And of course I am the College medical advisor,” Dr Knight went on, looking amused. “A sinecure if ever there was one. They are a disgustingly healthy crowd.”

‘But —” Lucy began. It is the outsider, Desterro (she was thinking), who insists on their abnormality. If it is true, then surely this trained observer, also from the outside, must be aware of it.

“They have accidents, of course,” the doctor said, misunderstanding Lucy’s ‘but.’ “Their life is a long series of minor accidents — bruises, and sprains, and dislocated fingers, and what not — but it is very rarely that anything serious happens. Bentley has been the only instance in my time — the girl whose room you have. She broke a leg, and won’t be back till next term.”

“But — it is a strenuous training, a gruelling life; do they never break down under it?”

“Yes. That’s not unknown. The last term is particularly trying. A concentration of horrors from the student’s point of view. Crit. classes, and —”

“Crit. classes?”

“Yes. They each have to take a gym. and a dancing class in the presence of the united Staff and their own set, and are judged according to the show they make. Nerve-shattering. These are all over, the crit. classes; but there are still the Finals, and the Demonstration, and being given jobs, and the actual parting from student life, and what not. Yes, it is a strain for them, poor dears. But they are amazingly resilient. No one who wasn’t would have survived so long. Let me get you some more coffee. I’m going to have some.”

She took Lucy’s cup and went away to the table; and Lucy leaned back in the folds of the curtain and looked at the garden. The sun had set, and the outlines were growing blurred; there was the first hint of dew in the soft air that blew up against her face. Somewhere on the other side of the house (in the students’ common-room?) a piano was being played and a girl was singing. It was a charming voice: effortless and pure, without professional tricks and without fashionable dealing in quarter-tones. The song, moreover, was a ballad; old-fashioned and sentimental, but devoid of self-pity and posing. A frank young voice and a frank old song. It shocked Lucy to realise how long it was since she had heard any voice raised in song that was not a product of valves and batteries. In London at this moment the exhausted air was loud with radios; but here, in this cool, scented garden, a girl was singing for the love of it.

I have been too long in London, she thought; I must have a change. Find a hotel on the South Coast, perhaps. Or go abroad. One forgets that the world is young.

“Who is singing?” she asked, as her cup was handed to her again.

“Stewart, I think,” Dr Knight said, not interested. “Miss Pym, you can save my life if you like to.”

Lucy said that to save a doctor’s life would give her immense satisfaction.

“I want to go to a medical conference in London,” Dr Knight said in a conspiratorial undertone. “It is on Thursday, but that is the day of my psychology lecture. Miss Hodge thinks I am for ever going to conferences, so I can’t possibly beg off again. But if you were to take that lecture for me, everything would be grand.”

“But I am going back to London myself tomorrow after lunch.”

“No!” said Dr Knight, much dashed. “Do you have to?”

“Oddly enough, I was just thinking how much I should hate going back.”

“Then don’t go. Stay on for a day or two, and save my life. Do, Miss Pym.”

“And what would Henrietta think of the substitution?”

“That, of course, is sheer affectation, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself. I’m not a best-seller, I’m not a celebrity, I’m not the author of the latest text-book on the subject —”

Lucy made a small gesture acknowledging her fault, but her eyes were on the garden. Why should she go back to London yet? What was there to take her back? Nothing and nobody. For the first time that fine, independent, cushioned, celebrated life of hers looked just a little bleak. A little narrow and inhuman. Could it be? Was there, perhaps, a lack of warmth in that existence she had been so content with? Not a lack of human contact, certainly. She had her fill of human contact. But it was a very all-of-a-piece contact, now that she thought of it. Except for Mrs Montmorency from one of the suburbs of Manchester, who was her daily help, and her Aunt Celia down in Walberswick, who sometimes had her for weekends, and the tradespeople, she never talked to anyone who wasn’t somehow connected with the publishing or the academic worlds. And though all the ladies and gentlemen belonging to these two worlds were, of course, both intelligent and amusing, there was no denying that their interests were limited. You couldn’t, for instance, talk to one and the same person about Social Security, hill-billy songs, and what won the 3.30. They each had their “subject.” And their subject, she found to her cost, was only too likely to be royalties. Lucy herself had only the vaguest idea about royalties; especially her own, and could never keep her end up in this sort of conversation.

Besides, none of them was young.

At least, not young as these children here were young. Young in years a few of her acquaintances might be, but they were already bowed down with the weight of the world’s wrongs and their own importance. It was nice to meet a morning-of-the-world youngness for a change.

And it was nice to be liked.

There was no good in trying to diddle herself about why she wanted to stay a little longer; why she was seriously prepared to forgo the delights of civilisation that had seemed so desirable — so imperatively desirable — only yesterday morning. It was nice to be liked.

In the last few years she had been ignored, envied, admired, kow-towed to, and cultivated; but warm, personal liking was something she had not had since the Lower Fourth said goodbye to her, with a home-made pen-wiper and a speech by Gladys Someone-or-other, shortly after her legacy. To stay in this atmosphere of youth, of liking, of warmth, she was willing to overlook for a space the bells, the beans, and the bathrooms.

“Knight,” said young Miss Wragg, raising her voice from the conversation behind them, “did the Disciples ask you about giving them an introduction to some doctor or other in Manchester?”

“Oh, yes, they asked me. In concert. I said yes, of course. As a matter of fact, I was glad to; I think they will be a great success.”

“Individually, the Disciples are null and void,” Miss Lux said. “But collectively they have a quadruple ruthlessness that will be very useful in Lancashire. It is the only occasion I have ever come across when nothing multiplied by four became something like six-and-a-half. If nobody wants the Sunday Times I shall take it to bed with me.”

No one apparently wanted it. It had been lying unopened in the drawing-room after lunch when Lucy had been the first to look at it, and as far as she had noticed no one except Miss Lux had picked it up since.

“This set of Seniors are planting themselves out very nicely. Almost without our help,” Madame Lefevre said. “There will be less heart-burning than usual.” She did not sound very sorry about the heart-burning; just sardonic.

“It continually surprises me,” said Miss Hodge, not at all sardonic, “how each year the students slip into their appropriate places in the world’s work. The openings come up as the students are ready to fill them. Almost like — like two pieces of the same machine. So surprising and so satisfactory. I don’t think we have had a misfit in all my years at Leys. I had a letter from the Cordwainers School, by the way; in Edinburgh, you know. Mulcaster is getting married and they want someone in her place. You will remember Mulcaster, Marie?” She turned to Madame Lefevre who, except for Henrietta, was the Oldest Inhabitant — and who, incidentally, had been christened plain Mary.

“Of course I remember her. A lump without leaven,” said Madame, who judged everyone by their capacity to execute rondes de jambes.

“A nice girl,” Henrietta said placidly. “I think Cordwainers will be a very good place for Sheena Stewart.”

“Have you told her about it?” Miss Wragg asked.

“No, oh, no; I always like to sleep on things.”

“Hatch them out, you mean,” Madame said. “You must have heard about Cordwainers before lunch-time yesterday because that was the last post, and it is only now we hear about it.”

“It was not very important,” Henrietta said defensively; and then added with what was nearly a simper: “But I have heard rumours of a ‘plum,’ a really wonderful chance for someone.”

“Tell us,” they said.

But Henrietta said no; that no official notice had come, that no official notice or application might come at all, and until it did it was better not to talk about it. But she still looked pleased and mysterious.

“Well, I’m going to bed,” Miss Lux said, picking up the Times and turning her back on Henrietta’s elephantine coyness. “You are not going before lunch tomorrow, are you, Miss Pym?”

“Well,” said Lucy, pitchforked of a sudden into decision, “I wondered if I might stay on for a day or two? You did ask me to, you know,” she reminded Henrietta. “It has been so nice — So interesting to watch a world so different — And it is so lovely here, so —” Oh, dear, why must she sound so idiotic. Would she never learn to behave like Lucy Pym the Celebrity?

But her stammerings were swamped in the loud wave of their approval. Lucy was touched to note a gleam of pleasure even on the face of Miss Lux.

“Stay on till Thursday and take my Senior Psychology lecture, and let me go to a conference in London,” Dr Knight suggested, as if it had just occurred to her.

“Oh, I don’t know whether —” began Lucy, all artistic doubt, and looked at Henrietta.

“Dr Knight is always running away to conferences,” Miss Hodge said, disapproving but without heat. “But of course we would be delighted and honoured, Lucy, if you agreed to give the students a second lecture.”

“I should like to. It would be nice to feel myself a temporary member of the Staff, instead of a mere guest. I should like to very much.” She turned in rising to wink at Dr Knight, who was squeezing her arm in a rapture of gratitude. “And now I think I must get back to the student wing.”

She said goodnight and went out with Miss Lux.

Lux eyed her sideways as they moved together to the back of the house, but Lucy, catching the glance, thought that there was a friendly gleam in that ice-grey eye.

“Do you really like this menagerie?” Lux asked. “Or are you just looking for things to stick on cardboard with pins?”

That was what The Nut Tart had asked yesterday afternoon. Have you come looking for specimens? Well, she would make the same answer and see what Lux’s reaction would be.

“Oh, I’m staying because I like it. A college of Physical Training wouldn’t be a very good place to look for the abnormal, anyhow, would it.” She made it a statement, not a question; and waited.

“Why not?” asked Miss Lux. “Sweating oneself into a coma may stultify the reason but it doesn’t destroy the emotions.”

“Doesn’t it?” Lucy said, surprised. “If I were dog-tired I’m certain I wouldn’t have any feelings about anything but going to sleep quickly.”

“Going to sleep dead tired is all right; normal, and pleasant, and safe. It is when one wakens up dead tired that the trouble begins.”

“What trouble?”

“The hypothetical trouble of this discussion,” Lux said, smoothly.

“And is wakening up dead tired a common thing, would you say?”

“Well, I’m not their medical adviser so I can’t run round with a stethoscope and fond inquiries, but I should say that five Seniors out of six in their last term are so tired that each morning is a mild nightmare. It is when one is as tired as that that one’s emotional state ceases to be normal. A tiny obstacle becomes an Everest in the path; a careless comment becomes a grievance to be nursed; a small disappointment is all of a sudden a suicidal affair.”

There swam up in Lucy’s mind a vision of that circle of faces at tea-time. Brown, laughing, happy faces; careless and for the most part notably confident. Where in that relaxed and healthy crowd had there been the least hint of strain, of bad temper? Nowhere. They had moaned over their hard lot certainly, but it was a humourous and detached complaint.

Tired they might be; in fact tired they certainly were — it would be a miracle if they were not; but tired to the point of abnormality, no. Lucy could not believe it.

“This is my room,” Lux said, and paused. “Have you something to read? I don’t suppose you brought anything if you meant to go back yesterday. Can I lend you something?”

She opened the door, exhibiting a neat bed-sitting-room of which the sole decorations were one engraving, one photograph, and an entire wainscotting of books. From next-door came the babble of Swedish chat.

“Poor Fröken,” Lux said unexpectedly, as Lucy cocked an ear.

“She has been so homesick. It must be wonderful to be able to talk family gossip in one’s own tongue again.” And then, seeing Lucy’s eyes on the photograph: “My young sister.”

“She is very lovely,” Lucy said; and hoped instantly that there had been no hint of surprise in her tone.

“Yes.” Lux was drawing the curtains. “I hate moths. Do you? She was born when I was in my teens, and I have practically brought her up. She is in her third year at Medical school.” She came and stood for a moment looking at the photograph with Lucy. “Well, what can I give you to read? Anything from Runyon to Proust.”

Lucy took The Young Visiters. It was a long time since she had read it last, but she found that she was smiling at the very sight of it. A sort of reflex action; quite involuntary. And when she looked up she found that Lux was smiling too.

“Well, that is one thing I shall never do,” Lucy said regretfully.

“What?”

“Write a book that makes all the world smile.”

“Not all the world,” Lux said, her smile broadening. “I had a cousin who stopped half-way through. When I asked her why, she said: ‘So unlikely.’”

So Lucy went smiling away towards bed, glad that she was not going to catch that train tomorrow, and thinking about the plain Miss Lux who loved a beautiful sister and liked absurdity. As she turned into the long corridor of the E-wing she saw Beau Nash standing at the angle of the stairs at the far end, in the act of lifting a hand-bell to shoulder height, and in another second the wild yelling of it filled the wing. She stood where she was, her hands over her ears, while Beau laughed at her and swung the evil thing with a will. Lovely, she was, standing there with that instrument of torture in her hands.

“Is ringing the ‘bedroom’ bell the Head Girl’s duty?” Lucy asked, as Beau at last ceased to swing.

“No, the Seniors take week-about; it just happens to be my week. Being well down the list alphabetically I don’t have more than one week each term.” She looked at Miss Pym and lowered her voice in mock-confidence. “I pretend to be glad about that — everyone thinks it a frightful bore to have to watch the clock — but I love making a row.”

Yes, thought Lucy; no nerves and a body brimming with health; of course she would love the row. And then, almost automatically, wondered if it was not the row that she liked but the feeling of power in her hands. But no, she dismissed that thought; Nash was the one that life had been easy for; the one who had, all her life, had only to ask, or take, in order to have. She had no need of vicarious satisfactions; her life was one long satisfaction. She liked the wild clamour of the bell; that was all.

“Anyhow,” Nash said, falling into step with her, “it isn’t the ‘bedroom bell.’ It’s ‘Lights Out.’”

“I had no idea it was so late. Does that apply to me?”

“Of course not. Olympus does as it likes.”

“Even a boarded-out Olympus?”

“Here is your hovel,” Nash said, switching on the light and standing aside to let Lucy enter the bright little cell, so gay and antiseptic in the unshaded brilliance. After the subtleties of the summer evening and the grace of the Georgian drawing-room, it was like an illustration from one of the glossier American magazines. “I am glad I happened to see you because I have a confession to make. I won’t be bringing your breakfast tomorrow.”

“Oh, that is all right,” Lucy was beginning, “I ought to get up in any case —”

“No, I don’t mean that. Of course not. It is just that young Morris asked if she might do it — she is one of the Juniors — and —”

“The abductor of George?”

“Oh, yes, I forgot you were there. Yes, that one. And she seemed to think that her life would not be complete unless she had brought up your breakfast on your last morning, so I said that as long as she didn’t ask for your autograph or otherwise make a nuisance of herself, she could. I hope you don’t mind. She is a nice child, and it would really give her pleasure.”

Lucy, who didn’t mind if her breakfast was brought by a wall-eyed and homicidal negro so long as she could eat the leathery toast in peace and quiet, said she was grateful to young Morris, and anyhow it wasn’t going to be her last morning. She was going to stay on and take a lecture on Thursday.

“You are! Oh, that’s wonderful. I’m so glad. Everyone will be glad. You are so good for us.”

“A medicine?” Lucy wrinkled her nose in protest.

“No, a tonic.”

“Somebody’s Syrup,” Lucy said; but she was pleased.

So pleased that even pushing little hairpins into their appointed places did not bore her with the customary frenzy of boredom. She creamed her face and considered it, unadorned and greasy in the bright hard light, with unaccustomed tolerance. There was no doubt that being a little on the plump side kept the lines away; if you had to have a face like a scone it was at least comforting that it was a smooth scone. And, now she came to think of it, one was given the looks that were appropriate; if she had Garbo’s nose she would have to dress up to it, and if she had Miss Lux’s cheek-bones she would have to live up to them. Lucy had never been able to live up to anything. Not even The Book.

Remembering in time that there was no bedside light — students were discouraged from working in bed — she switched the light off and crossed to pull aside the curtains of the window looking out on the courtyard. She stood there by the wide-open window, smelling the cool scented night. A great stillness had settled on Leys. The chatter, the bells, the laughter, the wild protests, the drumming of feet, the rush of bath water, the coming and going, had crystallised into this great silent bulk, a deeper darkness in the quiet dark.

“Miss Pym.”

The whisper came from one of the windows opposite.

Could they see her, then? No, of course not. Someone had heard the small noise of her curtains being drawn back.

“Miss Pym, we are so glad you are staying.”

So much for the college grape-vine! Not fifteen minutes since Nash said goodnight, but already the news was in the opposite wing.

Before she could answer, a chorus of whispers came from the unseen windows round the little quadrangle. Yes, Miss Pym. We are glad. Glad, Miss Pym. Yes. Yes. Glad, Miss Pym.

“Goodnight, everyone,” Lucy said.

Goodnight, they said. Goodnight. So glad. Goodnight.

She wound her watch and pulled up a chair to put it on — the chair, rather: there was only one — so that there should be no burrowing under pillows for it in the morning; and thought how odd it was that only yesterday morning she could not wait to get out of this place.

And perhaps it was because no self-respecting psychologist would have anything to do with a thing so outmoded as Premonition that no small helpful imp from the Unexplainable was there to whisper in her drowsy ear: “Go away from here. Go away while the going is good. Go away. Away from here.”

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