Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

6

The chairs scraped on the parquet floor as the students rose from their kneeling position, and turned to wait while the Staff filed out of morning prayers. Lucy, having become “temporary Staff,” had made the gesture of attending this 8.45 ceremony as an off-set to the un-staff-like indulgence of breakfast in bed; and she had spent the last few minutes considering the collective legs of College as spread before her in kneeling rows and marvelling at their individuality. Dress was uniform at this hour of the morning, and heads were bowed in dutiful hands, but a pair of legs were as easy to identify as a face, she found. There they were: stubborn legs, frivolous legs, neat legs, dull legs, doubtful legs — already she needed only a turn of calf and piece of ankle to say: Dakers, or Innes, or Rouse, or Beau, as the case might be. Those elegant ones at the end of the first row were The Nut Tart. Did the nuns not mind that their protégé should listen to Anglican prayers, then? And those rather stick-like ones were Campbell, and those —

“Amen,” said Henrietta, with unction.

“Amen,” murmured the students of Leys, and rose to their feet with the scraping of chairs. And Lucy filed out with the Staff.

“Come in and wait while I arrange this morning’s post,” Henrietta said, “and then I’ll go over to the gymnasium with you,” and she led the way into her own sitting-room, where a meek little part-time secretary was waiting for instructions. Lucy sat down on the window-seat with the Telegraph, and listened with only half an ear to the professional conversation that followed. Mrs So-and-so had written to ask the date of the Demonstration, Mrs Someone-else wanted to know whether there was a hotel near-by where she and her husband could stay when they came to see their daughter perform, the receipt for the butcher must be looked out and presented to his disbelieving eye, the special lecturer for the last Friday of term had cried off, three Prospective Parents wanted prospectuses.

“All quite straightforward, I think,” Henrietta said.

“Yes,” agreed the meek little secretary. “I’ll get on with them at once. There was a letter from Arlinghurst. It doesn’t seem to be here.”

“No,” Henrietta said. “That can be answered later in the week.”

Arlinghurst, Lucy’s mind said. Arlinghurst. The school for girls, of course. A sort of female Eton. “I was at Arlinghurst,” they said, and that settled it. She took her attention from the Telegraph leader for a moment and thought that if the “plum” that Henrietta had been waiting for was Arlinghurst then indeed it was going to create more than the usual stir among the interested Seniors. She was on the point of asking whether Arlinghurst was in fact the “plum,” but was stopped partly by the presence of the meek little secretary but more immediately by the expression on Henrietta’s face. Henrietta — there was no denying it — Henrietta had a wary, a sort of guilty, look. The look of a person who is Up To Something.

Oh, well, thought Lucy, if she is merely hugging her lovely secret to herself, let her. I shan’t spoil it for her. She followed her friend down the long corridor that ran the length of the wing, and out to the covered way that continued the corridor to the gymnasium. The gymnasium lay parallel to the house and to the right-angled wing, so that from the air the buildings made a complete letter E; the three horizontal strokes being “old house,” the right-angled wing, and the gymnasium; the vertical stroke being the connecting wing and the covered way.

The door to which the covered way led was open, and from inside the gymnasium came the sounds of uncoordinated activity; voices, laughter, thudding feet. Henrietta paused by the open door and pointed through to the door on the other side, now closed. “That is the college crime,” she said. “Crossing the gymnasium to the field-path instead of using the appointed covered way round the building. That is why we have had to lock it up. One wouldn’t think that a few extra steps would mean much to students who took so many in the day, but there was no argument or threat which would stop them using the short cut through. So we removed the temptation altogether.”

She turned from the open door and led the way to the other end of the building, where a small porch held the stairway to the gallery. As they climbed the stairs Henrietta paused to point to a piece of mechanism on a low trolley, which filled the well of the staircase. “That,” she said, “is the most famous College character of all. That is our vacuum cleaner; known from here to New Zealand as The Abhorrence.”

“Why abhorrent?” Lucy asked.

“It used to be Nature’s Abhorrence, but it became shortened to The Abhorrence. You remember the tag one is taught at school: Nature abhors a vacuum.” She looked a moment longer at the monstrous object, caressing it with her eyes. “It cost us a deplorable sum, The Abhorrence, but it was money well spent. However well the gymnasium was cleaned in the old days, there was always a residue of dust, which was beaten into the air by the students’ feet and sucked up, of course, by the students’ respiratory passages; and the result was catarrh. Not universal, of course, but there never was a time, summer or winter, when some student or other was not having a bout of catarrh. It was Dr Knight’s predecessor who suggested that it might be invisible dust that was responsible, and she was right. Since we squandered that immense sum on The Abhorrence there has been no more catarrh. And of course,” she added happily, “it was a saving in the end since it is Giddy the gardener’s job to vacuum the gymnasium now, and we don’t have to pay cleaners.”

Lucy stopped as they reached the top of the stairs, and looked over the railings into the well again. “I don’t think I like it. It is very well named, it seems to me. There is something obscene about it.”

“It is unbelievably powerful. And very easy to work. It takes Giddy only about twenty minutes every morning, and when he has finished there is, as he says himself, ‘nothing left but the fixtures.’ He is very proud of The Abhorrence. He grooms it as if it were an animal.” Henrietta opened the door at the top of the stairs and they entered the gallery.

A gymnasium as a building does not permit of architecture. It is purely functional. It is an oblong box, lit by windows which are either in the roof or high up the walls. The gymnasium at Leys had windows where the walls met the roof, which is not a beautiful arrangement; but through their far-away panes at no hour of any day could direct sunlight blind a student’s eyes, and so cause an accident. The great oblong box of a building was filled with the reflected radiance of a summer morning; golden and soft. Across the floor were scattered the Senior students, limbering up, practising, criticising, and in a few happy instances playing the fool.

“Do they mind an audience?” Lucy asked as they sat down.

“They are very used to one. Hardly a day goes by without a visitor of some kind.”

“What is under the gallery? What is it they watch all the time?”

“Themselves,” said Henrietta succinctly. “The whole wall below the gallery is one long mirror.”

Lucy admired the impersonal interest on the faces of the students as they watched their reflected performances. To be able to view one’s physical entity with such critical detachment was surely no bad thing.

“It is one of the griefs of my life,” the dutch-doll Gage was saying, looking at her up-stretched arms, “that my arms have that kink at the elbow.”

“If you listened to that Friday-friend and used your will-power, you’d have them straight by now,” Stewart observed, not pausing in her own contortions.

“Probably bent back the other way,” Beau Nash mocked, from a doubled-up position at the rib-stalls.

Lucy deduced that a Friday-friend was the “interest” lecturer who appeared on Friday evenings; and wondered idly whether that particular one had called his subject “faith” or “mind-over-matter”; was it Lourdes or was it Coué?

Hasselt, the South African with the flat Primitive face, was clutching Innes’s ankles in the air while Innes stood on her hands. “Reeeee-ly on thee arrrrms, Mees Innes,” Hasselt was saying, in a would-be Swedish accent that was evidently a quotation from Fröken; and Innes laughed and collapsed. Looking at them, flushed and smiling (this, she thought, is the first time I have seen Mary Innes smile) Lucy felt again how out-of-place these two faces were. Hasselt’s belonged above a Madonna-blue robe, with a tiny landscape of hills and castles and roads somewhere at her left ear. And Innes’s to a portrait on some ancestral staircase — seventeenth century, perhaps? No, too gay, too adaptable, too arched-of-eye-brow. Sixteenth century, rather. Withdrawn, uncompromising, unforgiving; the-stake-or-nothing.

Away by herself in a far corner was Rouse, painstakingly stretching her ham-strings by walking her palms up to her feet. She couldn’t really need to stretch her ham-strings, not after years of continued stretching, so presumably this was merely a North–Country example of “makking siccar.” There was no fooling about for Miss Rouse; life was real, life was earnest; life was long ham-strings and a good post in the offing. Lucy wished she liked Miss Rouse better, and looked round for Dakers as a sort of antidote. But there was no tow-head and cheerful pony-face among the collection.

And then, suddenly, the desultory noise and the chatter faded.

No one had come in by the open door at the far end, but there was beyond doubt a Presence in the place. Lucy could feel it coming up through the gallery floor at her feet. She remembered that there was a door at the foot of the stairway; where The Abhorrence stood. Someone had come in down there.

There was no audible word of command, but the students, who a moment before had been scattered over the floor like beads from a broken string, were now, as if by magic, standing in a still, waiting line.

Fröken Gustavsen walked out from under the gallery, and surveyed them.

“Unt wvere ees Mees Dakers?” she asked in a cool small voice. But even as she said it a flustered Dakers ran in through the open door, and stopped short as she saw the picture that waited her.

“Oh, catastrophe!” she wailed, and darted to the gap that someone had accommodatingly left for her. “Oh, I am sorry, Fröken. Abyssmally sorry. It was just that —”

“Ees eet proposed to be laate at the Demonstraation?” asked Fröken, with almost scientific interest.

“Oh, no, of course not, Fröken. It was just that —”

“We know. We know. Something was lost, or broke. Eef eet wass possible to come to thees plaace naakid, Mees Dakers would still find something to lose or break. Attention!”

They came to attention, and were motionless except for their quick breathing.

“Eef Mees Thomas were to pull een her stow-mach the line would be improved, I theenk.”

Thomas obliged instantly.

“Unt Mees Appleyard shows too much cheen.”

The plump little girl with the red cheeks pulled her chin further into her neck. “So!”

They right-turned into file, covered, and marched in single file down the gymnasium; their feet falling so lightly on the hard wood floor that they were almost inaudible.

“Quieter, quieter. Lightly, lightly!”

Was it possible?

But it was possible, apparently. Still more quietly fell those long-trained feet, until it was unbelievable that a collection of solid young females weighing individually anything up to ten stones were marching, marching, round the hall.

Lucy slid an eye round to Henrietta; and almost instantly switched it away again. The fond pride on Henrietta’s large pale countenance was startling, almost painful, to see; and for a little Lucy forgot the students below and thought about Henrietta. Henrietta of the sack-line figure and the conscientious soul. Henrietta who had had elderly parents, no sisters, and the instincts of a mother hen. No one had ever lain awake at night over Henrietta; or walked back and fore in the darkness outside her house; or even, perhaps, sent her flowers. (Which reminded her to wonder where Alan was nowadays; there had been several weeks, one spring, when she had thought quite seriously of accepting Alan, in spite of his Adam’s apple. It would be nice, she had thought, to be cherished for a change. What had stopped her was the realisation that the cherishing would have to be mutual. That she would inevitably have to mend socks, for instance. She didn’t like feet. Even Alan’s.) Henrietta had been apparently doomed to a dull if worthy life. But it had not turned out like that. If the expression on her unguarded face had been any criterion, Henrietta had built for herself a life that was full, rich, and satisfying. She had said, in her first re-union gossip with Lucy, that when she took over Leys a decade ago it had been a small and not very popular college, and that she and Leys had flourished together; that she was, in fact, a partner now as well as Principal, and a partner in a flourishing concern. But until she had surprised that look on Henrietta’s face, Lucy had not realised how much her old friend identified herself with her work. That College was her world, she knew; Henrietta talked of little else. But absorption in a business was one thing, and the emotion on Henrietta’s face was quite another.

She was roused from her speculations by the sound of apparatus being dragged out. The students had stopped arching themselves into bows at the rib-stalls, puffed out like figureheads on a ship, and were now bringing out the booms. Lucy’s shins ached with remembered pain; how often had she barked her bones against that unyielding piece of wood; certainly one of the compensations of middle-age was not having to do uncomfortable things.

The wooden upright was now standing in the middle of the floor, and the two booms were fitted into its grooved sides and hoisted as high as hands could reach. The iron pins with wooden handles shot home through their appointed holes in the upright to hold the booms up, and there was the instrument of torture ready. Not that it was shin-barking time yet; that would come later. Just now it was only “travelling.” Two by two, one at each end, the students proceeded along the boom, hanging by their hands, monkey-wise. First sideways, then backwards, and lastly with a rotary movement, like a travelling top. All this was done with monotonous perfection until it was Rouse’s turn to rotate. Rouse had bent her knees for the spring to the boom, and then dropped her hands and looked at her instructor with a kind of panic on her tight, freckled face.

“Oh, Fröken,” she said, “I’m not going to be able to do it.”

Nonsense, Mees Rouse,” Fröken said, encouraging but not surprised (this was apparently a repetition of some previous scene), “you have done eet perfectly since you were a Junior. You do it now of course.”

In a strained silence Rouse sprang to the boom and began her progress along it. For half its length she performed with professional expertness, and then for no apparent reason her hand missed the boom as she turned, and her body swung away, suspended by her other hand. She made an effort to recover herself, pulling up with her sustaining hand, but the rhythm had broken and she dropped to her feet.

“I knew it,” she said. “I’m going to be like Kenyon, Fröken. Just like Kenyon.”

Mees Rouse; you are not going to be like anyone. It is knack, that. And for a moment you haf lost the knack, that is all. You will try again.”

Rouse sprang once more to the boom above her head.

No!” said the Swede with emphasis; and Rouse came back to the ground looking inquiring.

Not saying: Oh, dear, I cannot do eet. But saying: This I do often, with ease, and now also. So!”

Twice more Rouse tried, and failed.

“Ve-ry well, Mees Rouse. That will do. One half of the boom will be put up last thing at night, as it is now, and you will come een the morning early and practise, until the knack has come back.”

“Poor Rouse,” Lucy said, as the booms were being reversed for balance exercises, flat side up instead of rounded.

“Yes, such a pity,” Henrietta said. “One of our most brilliant students.”

“Brilliant?” said Lucy, surprised. It was not an adjective she would have applied to Rouse.

“In physical work, anyhow. Most brilliant. She finds written work a difficulty, but makes up for it by hard work. A model student, and a great credit to Leys. Such a pity about this little nervous development. Over-anxiety, of course. It happens sometimes. Usually over something quite simple, strangely enough.”

“What did she mean by ‘being like Kenyon’? That is the girl whose place Teresa Desterro took, isn’t it?”

“Yes. How clever of you to remember. That was a case in point. Kenyon suddenly decided that she could not balance. She had always had abnormally good balance, and there was no reason why she should lose it. But she began by being wobbly, took to jumping off in the middle of an exercise, and ended by being unable to get up from sitting position on the boom. She sat there and clung to the boom like a frightened child. Sat there and cried.”

“Some inner insufficiency.”

“Of course. It was not the balance that she was frightened of. But we had to send her home. We are hoping that she will come back to finish her training when she has had a long rest. She was very happy here.”

Was she? thought Lucy. So happy that she broke down. What had reduced the girl who was good at balance to a crying and shivering piece of misery, clutching at the boom?

She watched with a new interest the progress of the balancing that had been poor Kenyon’s Waterloo. Two by two the students somersaulted upwards on to the high boom, turned to a sitting position sideways, and then slowly stood up on the narrow ledge. Slowly one leg lifted, the muscles rippling in the light, the arms performed their appointed evolution. The faces were calm, intent. The bodies obedient, sure, and accustomed. When the exercise was finished they sank until they were sitting on their heels, upright and easy, put forward blind hands to seize the boom, descended to sideways sitting once more, and from there to a forward somersault and so the ground again.

No one fluffed or failed. The perfection was unblemished. Even Fröken found no word to say. Lucy found that she had been holding her breath. She sat back and relaxed and breathed deeply.

“That was lovely. At school the balance was much lower, wasn’t it, and so it was not exciting.”

Henrietta looked pleased. “Sometimes I come in just to see the balance and nothing else. So many people like the more spectacular items. The vaulting and so on. But I find the quiet control of the balance very satisfying.”

The vaulting, when it came, was spectacular enough. The obstacles were, to Lucy’s eyes, horrific; and she looked with uncomprehending wonder at the delighted faces of the students. They liked this. They liked launching themselves into nothingness, flying through the air to problematical landings, twisting and somersaulting. The restraint that had characterised their attitude up to now had vanished; there was verve in their every movement, a sort of laughter; living was good and this was a physical expression of their joy in living. Amazed, she watched the Rouse who had stumbled and failed over the simple boom exercise, performing hair-raising feats of perfection that must require the maximum of courage, control, and “knack.” (Henrietta had been right, her physical performance was brilliant. She was also, no doubt, a brilliant games player; her timing was excellent. But still that “brilliant” stuck in Lucy’s throat. “Brilliant” meant someone like Beau; an all-round fineness; body, mind, and spirit.)

Mees Dakers! Take the left hand off at wons. Is eet mountaineering you are?”

“I didn’t mean to leave it so long, Fröken. Really I didn’t.”

“That is understood. It is the not meaning to that ees rrreprehensible. Come again, after Mees Mathews.”

Dakers came again, and this time managed to make her rebellious hand release its grip at the appropriate moment.

“Ha!” she said, delighted with her own success.

“Ha indeed,” agreed Fröken, a smile breaking. “Co-ordination. All is co-ordination.”

“They like Fröken, don’t they,” Lucy said to Henrietta, as the students tidied away the implements of their trade.

“They like all the Staff,” Henrietta said, with a faint return of her Head–Girl tone. “It is not advisable to keep a mistress who is unpopular, however good she may be. On the other hand it is desirable that they should be just a little in awe of their preceptors.” She smiled in her senior-clergy-making-a-joke manner; Henrietta did not make jokes easily. “In their different ways, Fröken, Miss Lux, and Madame Lefevre all inspire a healthy awe.”

“Madame Lefevre? If I were a student, I don’t think it would be awe that would knock my knees together, but sheer terror.”

“Oh, Marie is quite human when you know her. She likes being one of the College legends.”

Marie and The Abhorrence, thought Lucy; two College legends. Each with identical qualities; terrible and fascinating.

The students were standing in file, breathing deeply as they raised their arms and lowered them. Their fifty minutes of concentrated activity had come to an end, and there they were: flushed, triumphant, fulfilled.

Henrietta rose to go, and as she turned to follow Lucy found that Fröken’s mother had been sitting behind them in the gallery. She was a plump little woman with her hair in a bun at the back, and reminded Lucy of Mrs. Noah, as portrayed by the makers of toy Arks. Lucy bowed and smiled that extra-wide-for-foreigners smile that one uses to bridge the gap of silence, and then, remembering that although this little woman spoke no English she might speak German, she tried a phrase, and the little woman’s face lit up.

“To speak with you, Fräulein, is such pleasure that I will even speak German to do it,” she said. “My daughter tells me that you are very distinguished.”

Lucy said that she had had a success, which was not the same thing as being distinguished unfortunately; and expressed her admiration for the work she had just witnessed. Henrietta who had taken Classics instead of Modern Languages at school, washed her hands of this exchange of civilities, and preceded them down the stairs. As Lucy and Fru Gustavsen came out into the sunlight the students were emerging from the door at the other end, running or dawdling across the covered way to the house. Last of the group came Rouse, and Lucy could not help suspecting that her emergence was timed to coincide with the passing of Henrietta. There was no need for her to linger a yard or two behind the others like that; she must see out of the tail of her eye that Henrietta was bearing down on her. In similar circumstances Lucy would have bolted, but Rouse was lingering. She liked Miss Rouse even less than usual.

Henrietta overtook the girl and paused to speak to her; and as Lucy and her companion passed them Lucy saw the expression on the tight freckled face turned up to receive the Principal’s words of wisdom, and remembered what they had called that at school. “Being smarmy.” And laying it on with a trowel, too, she thought with vulgar satisfaction.

“And I’ve always liked freckles, too,” she said regretfully.

Bitte?

But this was not a subject that could be done justice to in German. The Significance of Freckles. She could see it: a thick tome full of portmanteau words and portentousness. No, it would need French to do it justice. Some distilled essence of amiable cynicism. Some pretty little blasting phrase.

“Is this your first visit to England?” she asked; and instead of entering the house with the others they strolled together through the garden towards the front of the house.

Yes, this was Fru Gustavsen’s first visit to England, and it amazed her that a people who created gardens like this should also create the buildings in them. “Not this, of course,” she said, “this old house is very pleasant. It is of a period that was good, yes? But what one sees from train and taxi; after Sweden it is horrible. Please do not think that I am Russian about things. It is —”

“Russian?”

“Yes. Naive, and ignorant, and sure that no one can do anything as well as my own country can do it. It is just that I am used to modern houses that are good to look at.”

Lucy said that she might as well get over the subject of our cooking while she was at it.

“Ach, no,” said the little woman surprisingly, “it is not so, that. My daughter has told me. Here in College it is according to regime”— Lucy thought that “according to regime” was tact of the most delicate —“and so is not typical. Nor in the hotels is it typical, my daughter says. But she has stayed in private houses in holiday time, and the dishes of the country, she says, are delicious. Not everything she liked. Not everyone likes our raw herring, after all. But the joint roasted in the oven, and the apple tart with cream, and the cold ham very pink and tender, all that is most admirable. Most admirable.”

So, walking through the summer garden Lucy found herself expatiating on herrings fried in oatmeal, and parkins, and Devonshire splits, and hot-pot, and collops, and other regional delicacies. She concealed the existence of the pork pie, which she privately considered a barbarism.

As they turned the corner of the house towards the front door, they passed the windows of a lecture-room where the Seniors were already engaged in listening to Miss Lux. The windows were pushed up from the bottom as far as they would go, so that the room was visible in all its details, and Lucy cast an idle glance at the assembled profiles presented to her.

She had looked away before she realised that these were not the faces she had seen only ten minutes ago. She looked back again, startled. Gone was the excitement, the flush of exercise, the satisfaction of achievement. Gone for the moment was even the youth. The faces were tired and spiritless.

Not all of them, of course. Hasselt still had her air of calm well-being. And Beau Nash’s face had still its bright indestructible good looks. But the majority looked sunken; indescribably weary. Mary Innes, seated nearest the window, had a marked line from nostrils to chin; a line that had no business there for thirty years yet.

A little saddened and uncomfortable, as one is at the unexpected discovery of an unhappiness in the middle of delight, Lucy turned her head away, and her last glimpse as she walked past was the face of Miss Rouse. And the expression on the face of Miss Rouse surprised her. It reminded her of Walberswick.

Now why Walberswick?

The wary freckled countenance of Miss Rouse had nothing in common with that formidable grande dame who was Lucy’s aunt.

Certainly not.

Then why — but stop! It wasn’t her aunt; it was her aunt’s cat. The expression on that North–Country face in the lecture-room was the expression on the face of Philadelphia when she had had cream instead of milk in her saucer. And there was only one word for that expression. The word smug.

Lucy felt, not unreasonably, that someone who had just failed to perform a routine exercise had no right to be looking smug. And the last faint lingering inclination to be sorry for Miss Rouse died in her.

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