Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

7

“Miss Pym,” said The Nut Tart, materialising at Lucy’s elbow, “let us run away together.”

It was Wednesday morning, and College was sunk in the thick silence of Final Examinations. Lucy was leaning over a five-barred gate behind the gymnasium, staring at a field of buttercups. It was here at the end of the Leys garden that the country began; the real country, free of the last tentacles of Larborough, unraped and unlittered. The field sloped to a stream, beyond which was the cricket field; and beyond that into the far distance stretched the unbroken pattern of hedge and tree and pasture; yellow, and white, and green; asleep in the morning sunshine.

Lucy took her eyes with difficulty from the shimmering yellow of the buttercups that had been mesmerising her, and wondered how many flowered silk frocks the Brazilian possessed. Here was yet another one, shaming the English subtleties with its brilliance.

“Where do you propose that we run to?” she asked.

“Let’s go to the village.”

“Is there a village?”

“There is always a village in England; it is that kind of country. But more especially there is Bidlington. You can see the weather thing of the church steeple just over those trees there.”

“It looks a long way,” said Lucy, who was no great walker, and was greatly content where she was; it was a long time since she had had a field of buttercups to look at and all time to do it in. “Is it much of a place?”

“Oh yes. It is a two-pub village,” Desterro said, as one quoting a calibre. “Besides, it has everything a village in England should have. Queen Elizabeth slept there, and Charles the Second hid there; and Crusaders are buried in the church — there is one just like the manager of our ranch in Brazil — and all the cottages are obtainable on postcards at the shop; and it appears in books, the village does —”

“Guide books, you mean?”

“No, no. It has an author who specialised in it, you understand. I read one of his books when I came first to Leys. Rain Over The Sky it was called. All breasts and incest. And it has the Bidlington Martyrs — that is six men who threw stones at the police station last century some time and got put in jail. Imagine a country that remembers a thing like that! In my country they use knives — when they can’t afford revolvers — and we smother the corpses with flowers, and cry a lot, and forget all about it next week.”

“Well —”

“We can have some coffee at The Teapot.”

“A little Hibernian, surely?”

But that was too much for even an intelligent stranger to these shores. “It is real coffee, I may tell you. It both smells and tastes. Oh, come on, Miss Pym. It is a small fifteen minutes away, and it is not yet ten o’clock. And there is nothing to do in this place until we are summoned to eat beans at one o’clock.”

“Are you not taking any of the examinations?” Lucy asked, passing meekly through the gate that was held open for her.

“Anatomy I shall take, I think. Just, as you say, for the hell of it. I have taken all the lectures, so it will be fun to find out how much I know. It is worth knowing anatomy. It is a great labour, of course; it is a subject in which imagination is not appreciated, but it is worth learning.”

“I suppose so. One wouldn’t feel a fool in an emergency.”

“Emergency?” said Desterro, whose mind had apparently not been running along these lines. “Oh, yes, I see. But what I meant is that it is a subject that does not get out of date. Now your subject, if you will forgive me, Miss Pym, is continually getting out of date, no? To listen to it is charming, but to work at it would be very foolish. An idea today may be nonsense tomorrow, but a clavicle is a clavicle for all time. You see?”

Lucy saw, and envied such economy of effort.

“So tomorrow, when the Juniors take their Final Anatomy, I take it too. It is a respect-worthy thing; my grandmother would approve of it. But today they are busy about conundrums, and so me, I walk to Bidlington with the charming Miss Pym and we have coffee.”

“Conundrums?”

The Nut Tart fished a folded paper from the minute pocket of her frock and read from it: “If the ball is over the touch line but has not reached the ground and a player standing inside hits or catches the ball and brings it into the court again, what decision would you give?”

In a silence more eloquent than speech she folded up the cyclostyled sheet and put it away again.

“How did you get a copy of their paper if they are still busy on the subject of games?”

“Miss Wragg gave me one. She said it might amuse me. It does.”

Down between the yellow field and the may-white hedge the path led them to the stream. They paused by the small bridge to stare at the shadowed water under the willows.

“Over there,” Desterro said, pointing at the level ground across the stream, “is the games field. In winter it is deep in mud, and they have bars across their shoes to keep them from slipping in it.” Lucy thought that if she were saying: “They wear rings through their noses to add to their attraction” the tone would be identical. “Now we walk down-stream to the next little bridge and get on to the road there. It is not a road; just a lane.” She moved in silence down the shaded path, a bright dragon-fly of a creature, graceful and alien; and Lucy was surprised to find that she was capable of so unbroken a quiet.

As they came up on to the road at last she said: “Have you any money, Miss Pym?”

“No,” said Lucy, stopping in dismay.

“Neither have I. But it is all right. Miss Nevill will finance us.”

“Who is Miss Nevill?”

“The lady who runs the tea-house.”

“That is rather unusual, isn’t it?”

“Not with me. I am always forgetting my money. But Miss Nevill is charming. Do not feel bad about it, dear Miss Pym, I am in good standing in the village, you will see.”

The village was all the Desterro had claimed for it; and so was Miss Nevill. So indeed, was The Teapot. It was one of those tea-shops so much despised by the bread-and-cheese-and-beer school, and so gladly welcomed by a generation of tea-drinkers who remember the fly-blown rooms behind village bakers’ shops, the primitive buns with currants like dead insects, the cracked and ill-washed cups, and the black evil tea.

It had all the properties stigmatised by the literary frequenters of village inns: the Indian-tree-pattern china, the dark oak tables, the linen curtains in a Jacobean design, the herbaceous bouquets in unglazed brown jugs; yes, even the arts and crafts in the window. But to Lucy, who in the Alan period had had her share of undusted “snugs,” it was quite frankly charming. There was a rich scent of spiced cakes straight from the oven; there was, as well as the long window on the street, a further window that gave on a garden bright with colour; there was peace, and coolness, and welcome.

Miss Nevill, a large lady in a chintz apron, received Desterro as an old and valued acquaintance, and asked if she were “playing hookey, as you say on your side of the Atlantic.” The Nut Tart ignored this identification with the back streets of Brooklyn. “This is Miss Pym who writes books about psychology and is our guest at Leys,” she said, politely introducing Lucy. “I have told her that here one can drink real coffee, and be in general civilised. We have no money at all, either of us, but we will have a great deal to eat and pay you back later.”

This appeared to Miss Nevill to be quite a normal proposition, and she went away to the kitchen to get the coffee with neither surprise nor demur. The place was empty at this hour of the morning, and Lucy wandered round inspecting the old prints and the new crafts — she was pleased to observe that Miss Nevill drew the line at Brummagem brass door-knockers even if there were raffia mats — and then sat down with Desterro at the table looking on to the village street. Before their coffee arrived, they were joined by a middle-aged couple, husband and wife, who drove up in a car as if they were searching for the place. The car was the kind that a provincial doctor might use; low in petrol consumption and in its third or fourth year of wear. But the woman who came round from the further seat with a laughing remark to her husband was not a typical doctor’s wife. She was grey, and slim, with long legs and narrow feet in good shoes. Lucy watched her with pleasure. It was not often nowadays that one saw good bones; smartness had taken the place of breeding.

“In my country,” said Desterro, looking with a considering eye at the woman and with a contemptuous eye on the car, “that woman would have a chauffeur and a footman.”

It was not often, moreover, that one saw a middle-aged husband and wife so pleased with each other, Lucy thought, as she watched them come in. They had a holiday air. They came in and looked about them expectantly, questioningly.

“Yes, this is it,” the woman said. “That is the window on the garden that she talks about, and there is the print of Old London Bridge.”

They moved about looking at things, quietly, unselfconsciously, and then took the table at the other window. Lucy was relieved to see that the man was the mate she would have chosen for such a woman; a little saturnine, perhaps, more self-absorbed than the woman; but quite admirable. He reminded her of someone, but she could not think of whom; someone whom she admired. The eyebrows, it was. Dark level brush-marks low over the eyes. His suit was very old, she noticed; well-pressed and kept, but with that much-cleaned air that overtakes a garment in its old age. The woman’s suit, a tweed, was frankly shabby, and her stockings were darned — very neatly darned — at the heels. Her hands, too, looked as if they were accustomed to household tasks, and her fine grey hair was washed at home and unwaved. What had she got to look so happy about, this woman who struggled with straitened means? Was it just being on holiday with a husband she loved? Was it that that gave her grey luminous eyes their almost childlike happiness?

Miss Nevill came in with the coffee and a large plate of spiced cakes shining with newness and crisp at the edges. Lucy decided to forget her weight just this once and enjoy herself. This was a decision she made with deplorable frequency.

As she poured the coffee she heard the man say: “Good morning. We have come all the way from the West Country to taste your griddle cakes. Do you think you could make us some, or are you too busy at this hour of the morning?”

“If you are too busy it doesn’t matter,” said the woman with the hard-worked hands. “We shall have some of the cakes that smell so good.”

But Miss Nevill would not be a minute in preparing the griddle cakes. She had no batter standing, she said, so the griddle cakes would not be as wonderful as when the batter was allowed to stand; but she was not often asked for them in summer time.

“No, I expect not. But our daughter at Leys has talked so often of them, and this may be our only chance of tasting them.” The woman smiled, half it seemed at the thought of her daughter, half at their own childish desire.

So they were College parents.

Whose? Lucy wondered, watching them over the rim of her coffee cup.

Beau’s, perhaps. Oh, no; Beau was rich, of course. Then whose?

She wouldn’t mind giving them to Dakers, but there were objections. That tow-head could not be sired by that dark grave man; nor could that adult and intelligent woman have given birth to the through-other piece of nonsense that was Dakers.

And then, quite suddenly, she knew whose eyebrows those were.

Mary Innes’s.

They were Mary Innes’s parents. And in some odd way they explained Mary Innes. Her gravity; her air of belonging to a century other than this one; her not finding life very amusing. To have standards to live up to, but to have little money to live up to them with, was not a happy combination for a girl burdened with the need to make a success of her training.

Into the silence that had succeeded Miss Nevill’s departure, Lucy heard her own voice saying: “Forgive me, but is your name Innes?”

They turned to her, puzzled for a moment; then the woman smiled. “Yes,” she said. “Have we met somewhere?”

“No,” said poor Lucy, growing a little pink as she always did when her impulsiveness had led her into an unexpected situation. “But I recognised your husband’s eyebrows.”

“My eyebrows,” said Mr Innes.

But his wife, quicker-witted, laughed. “Of course,” she said. “Mary! Are you from Leys, then? Do you know Mary?” Her face lit and her voice sang as she said it. Do you know Mary? Was it because she was going to see her daughter that she was happy today?

Lucy explained who she was, and introduced Desterro, who was pleased to find that this charming couple knew all about her. “There is very little we don’t know about Leys,” Mrs Innes said, “even if we have never seen the place.”

“Not seen it? Won’t you come over and have your coffee with us, by the way?”

“It was too far for us to inspect it before Mary went there. So we decided that we would wait until her training was finished and then come to the Demonstration.” Lucy deduced that if fares had not been a problem, Mary Innes’s mother would not have had to wait these years before seeing Leys; she would have come if only so that she could picture her daughter in her setting.

“But you are going there now, surely?”

“No. Oddly enough, we are not. We are on our way to Larborough, where my husband — he’s a doctor — has to attend a meeting. We could go to Leys, of course, but it is the week of the Final Examinations, and it would only distract Mary to have her parents descending suddenly on her for no reason. It is a little difficult to pass by when we are so near, but we have waited so long that we can wait another ten days or so. What we couldn’t resist was turning off the main West road as far as Bidlington. We didn’t expect to run into any College people at this hour of the morning, especially in Examination week, and we did want to see the place that Mary had talked so much about.”

“We knew that we shouldn’t have time on Demonstration Day,” Dr Innes said. “There will be so much to see then. A surprisingly varied training, isn’t it?”

Lucy agreed, and described her first impression of the staff-room with its varying worlds.

“Yes. We were a little puzzled when Mary chose that for her career — she had never shown any great interest in games, and I had thoughts that she might take a medical training — but she said she wanted a career with a great many facets; and she seems to have found it!”

Lucy remembered the concentration of purpose in those level brows; she had been right in her face-reading; if Mary Innes had an ambition it would not lightly be given up. Really, eyebrows were the most helpful things. If psychology ever went out of fashion she would write a book about face-reading. Under another name, of course. Face-reading was not well seen among the intelligentsia.

“She is very beautiful, your daughter,” said Desterro unexpectedly. She polished off a large mouthful of spice cake, and then, feeling the surprise in their silence, looked up at them. “Is it not a proper thing in England to compliment parents on their daughter’s looks?”

“Oh, yes,” Mrs Innes said hastily, “it is not that, it is just that we had not thought of Mary as beautiful. She is nice to look at, of course; at least we think so, but then parents are apt to be fatuous about an only daughter. She —”

“When I came first to this place,” Desterro said, reaching out for another cake from the plate (how did she keep that figure!), “it was raining, and all the dirty leaves were hanging down from the trees like dead bats and dripping on everyone, and everyone was rushing round College and saying: ‘Oh darling, how are you? Did you have nice hols? Darling, you won’t believe it but I left my new hockey stick on Crewe platform!’ And then I saw a girl who was not running about and not talking, and who looked a little like my great-grandmother’s grandmother who is in the dining-room at the house of my grandmother’s great-nephew, so I said: ‘It is not after all a barbarism. If it were as it seems to be that girl would not be here. I shall stay.’ Is there more coffee, Miss Pym, please? She is not only beautiful, your daughter, she is the only beautiful person at Leys.”

“What about Beau Nash?” asked Lucy loyally.

“In England at Christmas time —very little milk, Miss Pym, please — the magazines go all gay and give away bright pretty pictures that one can frame and hang above the kitchen mantel-piece to make glad the hearts of the cook and her friends. Very shiny, they are, with —”

“Now that,” said Mrs Innes, “is sheer libel! Beau is lovely, quite lovely, and you know it. I forgot that you would know Beau, too,” she turned to Lucy, “that you would know them all, in fact. Beau is the only one we know because she came to us for the holidays once; at Easter time when the West is kinder than the rest of England; and Mary went to them once for some weeks in the summer. We admired Beau so much.” She looked to her husband for confirmation; he had been too withdrawn.

Dr Innes roused himself — he had the wrung-out look of the overworked G.P. when he sank into repose — and the saturnine face took on a boyish and faintly malicious, if tender, amusement. “It was very odd to see our competent and self-reliant Mary being looked after,” he said.

Mrs Innes evidently felt that this was not the contribution she had been looking for, but decided to make the best of it. “Perhaps,” she said, as if thinking of it for the first time, “we have always taken Mary’s self-reliance so much for granted that she finds it pleasant to be looked after.” And to Miss Pym: “It is because they are complementary, I think, that they are such great friends. I am glad about it because we like Beau so much, and because Mary has never made intimate friends easily.”

“It is a very strenuous training, isn’t it?” Dr Innes said. “I sometimes look at my daughter’s notebooks and wonder why they bother with stuff that even a doctor forgets as soon as he leaves medical school.”

“The cross-section of the villi,” remembered Lucy.

“Yes; that sort of thing. You seem to have picked up a remarkable amount of physical lore in four days.”

The crumpets came, and even without the ritual standing of the batter they were worth coming even from the West Country for, supposing that had been true. It was a happy party. Indeed, Lucy felt that the whole room was soaked in happiness; that happiness bathed it like a reflexion from the sunlight outside. Even the doctor’s tired face looked content and relaxed. As for Mrs Innes, Lucy had rarely seen such happiness on the face of a woman; merely being in this room that her daughter had used so often was, it seemed, a sort of communion with her, and in a few days’ time she would see her in the flesh and share her achievement.

If I had gone back to London, Lucy thought, I would have had no share in this. What would I be doing? Eleven o’clock. Going for a walk in the Park, and deciding how to get out of being guest of honour at some literary dinner. Instead I have this. And all because Dr Knight wanted to go to a medical conference tomorrow. No, because once long ago Henrietta stood up for me at school. It was odd to think that this sun-lit movement in an English June began to take shape thirty years ago in a dark crowded school cloakroom filled with little girls putting on their goloshes. What were first causes, anyhow?

“This has been very pleasant,” said Mrs Innes, as they stood once more in the village street. “And it is nice to think that we shall meet again so soon. You will still be at Leys when the Demonstration comes off, won’t you?”

“I hope so,” Lucy said, and wondered if she could cadge a bed from Henrietta for so long.

“And you have both promised, solemnly and on your word of honour, not to tell anyone that you saw us today,” Dr Innes said.

“We have,” they said, waiting to see their new friends get into their car.

“Do you think I can turn the car in one swoop without hitting the Post Office?” Dr Innes said, consideringly.

“I should hate to make any more Bidlington martyrs,” his wife said. “A tiresome breed. On the other hand, what is this life without some risk?”

So Dr Innes encouraged his engine and swung into this risky evolution. The hub of his off front wheel left a faint smudge on the Post Office’s virgin white-wash.

“Gervase Innes, his mark,” said Mrs Innes, and waved her hand to them. “Till Demonstration Day, and pray for fine weather for it! Au revoir!”

They watched the car grow small up the village street, and turned towards the field path and Leys.

Nice people,” Desterro said.

“Charming. Odd to think that we should never have met them if you had not had a craving for good coffee this morning.”

“That is the kind of English, let me tell you in confidence, Miss Pym, that make every other nation on earth sick with envy. So quiet, so well-bred, so good to look at. They are poor, too, did you notice? Her blouse is quite washed-out. It used to be blue, the blouse; you could see when she leaned forward and her collar lifted a little. It is wrong that they should be so poor, people like that.”

“It must have cost her a lot not to see her daughter when she was so near,” Lucy said reflectively.

“Ah, but she has character, that woman. She was right not to come. None of the Seniors has one little particle of interest to spare this week. Take away even one little particle, and woops! the whole thing comes crashing down.” She plucked an ox-eyed daisy from the bank by the bridge and gave the first giggle Lucy had ever heard from her. “I wonder how my colleagues are getting on with their one-leg-over-the-line puzzles.”

Lucy was wondering how she herself would appear in Mary Innes’s Sunday letter home. “It will be amusing,” Mrs Innes had said, “to get back home and read all about you in Mary’s Sunday letter. Something to do with relativity. Like coming back the previous night.”

“It was strange that Mary Innes should have reminded you of someone in a portrait,” she said to Desterro. “That is how she seemed to me, too.”

“Ah yes, my great-grandmother’s grandmother.” Desterro dropped the daisy on to the surface of the water and watched the stream bear it down under the bridge and away out of sight. “I did not say it to the nice Inneses, but my great-grandmother’s grandmother was a little unpopular with her generation.”

“Oh? Shy, perhaps. What we call nowadays an inferiority complex.”

“I would not know about that. Her husband died too conveniently. It is always sad for a woman when her husband dies too conveniently.”

“You mean that she murdered him!” Lucy said, standing stock-still in the summer landscape, appalled.

“Oh, no. There was no scandal.” Desterro sounded reproving. “It was just that her husband died too conveniently. He drank too much, and was a great gambler, and not very attractive. And there was a loose tread at the top of the stairs. A long flight of stairs. And he stepped on it one day when he was drunk. That was all.”

“And did she marry again?” Lucy asked, having absorbed this information.

“Oh, no. She was not in love with anyone else. She had her son to bring up, and the estates were safe for him now that there was no one to gamble them away. She was a very good estate manager. That is where my grandmother got her talent from. When my grandmother came out from England to marry my grandfather she had never been further from her own county than Charles Street, West One; and in six months she was running the estate.” Desterro sighed with admiration. “They are wonderful, the English.”

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