Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

8

Miss Pym was invigilating at the Senior Pathology Final, so as to give Miss Lux more time for the correction and marking of previous papers, when Henrietta’s meek little secretary tiptoed in and laid the day’s letters reverently on the desk in front of her. Miss Pym had been frowning over a copy of the examination paper, and thinking how badly words like arthritis gonorrhoica and suppurative teno-synovitis went with the clean air of a summer morning after breakfast. Emphysema was not so bad; it might be the gardener’s name for a flower. A sort of columbine. And kyphosis she could picture as something in the dahlia line. Myelitis would be a small creeping plant, very blue, with a tendency to turn pink if not watched. And tabes dorsalis was obviously an exotic affair of the tiger lily persuasion, expensive and very faintly obscene.

Chorea. Sclerosis. Pes Varus.

Dear goodness. Did those young things know all that? Differentiate the treatment of something-or-other according to whether it is (a) congenital (b) traumatic (c) hysterical. Well, well. How had she ever erred so far as to feel patronising about these young creatures?

She looked down from her dais with affection on them; all writing away for dear life. The faces were sober but not on the whole anxious. Only Rouse looked worried, and Lucy decided that her face looked better worried than smug, and withheld her sympathy. Dakers was ploughing steadily over the paper with her tongue protruding and an automatic sigh as she came to the end of each line and began a new one. Beau was confident and detached as if she were writing invitations; doubt was something that had never entered her life; neither her present standing nor her future life was in jeopardy. Stewart’s face under the bright red hair was pale, but a faint smile played round her mouth; Stewart’s future, too, was assured; she was going to the Cordwainers School, going home to Scotland bringing her sheaves with her, and Lucy was going to the party she was giving in her room on Saturday night to celebrate. (“We don’t ask Staff to individual parties, but since you are not quite Staff you could rank as just a friend.”) The Four Disciples, spread across the front row, cast each other communal and encouraging glances now and then; this was their own particular subject and obviously what they did not know about it was not worth mentioning; Manchester was going to get its money’s worth. Innes, by the window, lifted her head every now and then to look out at the garden, as if seeking refreshment; that it was not inspiration she sought was apparent from her unhurried progress through the questions; she turned to the garden for some spiritual comfort; it was as if she said: “Ah yes, you are still there, Beauty; there is a world outside this lecture-room.” Innes was beginning to look as if College might be too much with her. That tired line from nostril to mouth was still there.

Lucy picked up the paper-knife from Miss Lux’s neat desk, and considered her post. Three bills, which she need not disturb the holy hush by opening. A receipt. An Annual Report. A large, square, deep-blue, and very stiff and expensive envelope with MILLICENT CRAYE embossed in scarlet across the flap (really there was no end to the self-advertising instinct in actresses) which would be five lines of thanks with a broad nib and out-size capitals for her contribution to the Benevolent Fund. That left only Mrs Montmorency. So into Mrs Montmorency she inserted the paper-knife.

Maddam (wrote Mrs Montmorency),

I as done as you sed an sent the urgent by passel post. Registered. Fred put it into Wigmore Street on is way to work receit enclosed I as packed the blue and the blouses also underclose as per instruxions your pink nitie not having come back from the laundry I as put in the bedge instead hopping this will be all rite.

Maddam, please dont think that I presoom but this is a good thing. It is no life for a woman writin books and not havin no young company please dont think I presoom but I as your welfare at heart you ben one of the nicest ladies I ever worked for Fred says the same. A nice lady like that he says when look at the things thats around not write it isnt please dont think I presoom

yrs respectfully

Mrs Montmorency.

P.S. Wire brush in toe of swede shoe

Lucy spent the next fifteen minutes being touched by Mrs Montmorency’s concern for her, being furious with the laundry, and wondering why she paid education rates. It wasn’t public schools for everyone that was needed but a great many elementary school classes of not more than a dozen, where the future Mrs Montmorencys could be adequately taken care of in the matter of the Three Rs. Old McLean, their jobbing gardener at home, had left school when he was twelve, but he could write as good a letter as any University acquaintance of hers; and why? Because he came from a small village school with small classes and a good schoolmaster.

And of course because he lived in an age when the Three Rs were more important than Free Milk. They made him literate and left the rest to him. He lived on white-flour scones and stewed tea and died hale and hearty at the age of ninety-two.

She was roused from her musings by Miss Rouse. There was a new expression on Miss Rouse’s face, and Lucy didn’t like the new expression at all. She had seen Miss Rouse look despairing, smarmy, smug, and worried, but till now she had never seen her look furtive.

Why should she be looking furtive?

She watched her for a moment or two, curiously.

Rouse looked up and caught her gaze and looked quickly away again. Her furtive expression had gone; what had taken its place was one labelled Consciously Carefree. Lucy knew all about that expression. She had not been Form Mistress of the Lower Fourth for nothing. Every eater of illicit sweets wore that expression. So did those who were doing their arithmetic in French lesson.

So did those who were cheating at an examination.

What was it Henrietta had said? “She finds written work difficult.”

So.

Emphysema and all those flowery sounding things were too much for Miss Rouse, and so she had provided some aids to memory. The question was what kind of aids and where were they? Not on her knee. The desks were open in front, so that a lap was no safe billet for a crib. And one could hardly write enough pathology on one’s finger-nails to be of much help; fingernails were useful only for formula. The obvious solution would be the notes up the sleeve, with or without an arrangement of elastic, but these girls had no sleeves below the elbow. Then, what? Where? Or was it that she was just having glimpses of O’Donnell’s paper in front of her? Or Thomas’s to her right?

Lucy went back to her letters for a moment or two, and waited. All schoolmistresses know this gambit. She looked up casually at the Seniors in general and again went back to her letters. When next she looked up it was straight at Rouse. Rouse’s head was low over her paper and in her left hand she held a handkerchief. Now even on a handkerchief it is not possible to write anything that is helpful on so large a subject as pathology, nor is it an easy affair to manipulate; on the other hand handkerchiefs were not common objects at Leys, and certainly no one else was clutching one and dabbing a nose occasionally with it. Lucy decided that whatever sources of information Rouse had lay in her left hand. Her desk was at the back on the window side, so that the wall was to her left; whatever she did with her left hand was not overlooked by anyone.

Well, thought Lucy, what does A do?

Walk down the room and demand the handkerchief and find that it is a square piece of white linen, nine inches by nine inches, with the owner’s initials properly marked in one corner, and as candid as a good laundry can make it?

Demand the handkerchief and unearth a scandal that will blast the Senior set like a hurricane at their least stable moment?

See that Rouse gets no chance to use her source of information, and say nothing?

The last was certainly the most sensible. She couldn’t have obtained very much aid from anything so far; it would be doing no injustice to anyone to make her a present of that small amount.

Lucy left the desk and strolled down the room to the back, where she stood leaning against the wall, Thomas to her right and Rouse to her left. Thomas stopped writing for a moment and looked up at her with a quick smile. But Rouse did not look up. And Lucy watched the hot blood dye her sandy neck a dull red. And presently she put away the handkerchief — and whatever else that hand contained — in her tunic pocket.

Well, she had foiled the machinations of the evil-intended, but she could feel no satisfaction about it. For the first time it occurred to her that what was very naughty and deplorable in the Fourth Form was quite sickening in a Senior Final. She was glad that it was Rouse and not anyone else. Presently she strolled back to her desk on the dais, and as far as she could see Rouse made no further effort to obtain help with her paper. On the contrary, she was very obviously in deep waters. And Lucy was infuriated to find herself feeling sorry for her. Yes, sorry. Sorry for Rouse. After all, the girl had worked. Worked like a madman, if all reports were true. It was not as if she had been taking an easy way out to save herself effort. It was just that she found acquiring theoretical knowledge difficult almost to the point of impossibility, and had succumbed to temptation in her desperation.

This point of view made Lucy feel much better about it, and she spent the rest of her invigilating time speculating quite undistressedly about the nature of the crib. She would look again at the examination paper, and consider the enormous range of material it covered, and wonder how Rouse had devised anything at once helpful and invisible. She longed to ask her.

The most likely explanation was that there were two or three particular subjects that Rouse was afraid of, and that help with them was scribbled on a piece of paper.

Innes was the first to shuffle the written sheets together and slip the waiting clip over their upper edge. She read through the pages, making a correction now and then, laid the sheaf down on her desk, sat for a few relaxed moments taking in the beauty of the garden, and then rose quietly and came forward to leave her work on the desk in front of Miss Pym.

“Oh, catastrophe!” wailed Dakers; “is somebody finished? And I have a whole question and a half to do yet!”

“Hush, Miss Dakers,” said Lucy, as in duty bound.

Dakers favoured her with a radiant smile, and went back to her steady plodding.

Stewart and Beau Nash followed Innes very shortly; and presently the pile of papers in front of Miss Pym began to grow. With five minutes of the allotted time still to go there were only three students left in the examination room: the little dark Welsh Thomas, who presumably slept too much to be a good “study”; the imperturbable Dakers still plodding steadily; and a flushed and unhappy Rouse, who was plainly making heavy weather of it. With two minutes still to go there was only Rouse; she was looking confused and desperate; making hasty little excursions back and fore through her papers, deleting, amending, and adding.

The distant yelling of the bell put an end to her indecisions and to her chances; whatever she had done must now abide. She shoved her papers hastily together, aware that the bell meant an instant appearance in the gymnasium and that Fröken would not consider the ordeal of an examination paper any excuse for being late, and brought them up to Lucy at the double. Lucy had expected her to avoid her eye, or otherwise to display symptoms of awkwardness or selfconsciousness. But Rouse surprised her by a frank smile and a still franker remark.

“Whoo!” said Rouse, blowing her breath out expressively, “that was a horror.” And she ran out to join the rest of her set.

Lucy opened the much-scored offering and looked at it with compunction. She had been imagining things. Rouse had not been cheating after all. Or at least not systematically. That furtive look might have been the guilt of inadequacy, now she came to think of it; or perhaps, at the worst, a hope of hints from her neighbour’s paper. And that flush that had dyed her neck was due to her awareness of being suspected; Lucy could remember very well even yet times at school when the very knowledge that her innocent act was capable of sinister interpretation was enough to make her face burn with false guilt. Really, she owed Rouse an apology. She would find some way of making it up to her.

She stacked the papers neatly together, put them in alphabetical order from sheer force of habit, checked their number, and carried them upstairs to Miss Lux’s room, glad that it would not be her chore to correct them. There was no one in the room, so she left them on the desk and stood for a moment wondering what to do with the hour before lunch. She toyed with the thought of watching the gymnastics, but decided that she must not allow the performance to become familiar, and consequently devoid of wonder, before Demonstration Day. Having induced Henrietta to keep her until then — Henrietta had not required much inducement, it is true — she was not going to mar her own pleasure in the day by too many tastings beforehand. She went downstairs again, lingering by the tall window on the landing — how well eighteenth-century architects had understood how to build houses; nowadays landings were not things to linger on, but breakneck little corners lit, if at all, by a small circular light like a ship’s port-hole — and from there, beyond the courtyard and the opposite wing she could see the elms of the field that led to the stream. She would go and look at the buttercups for a little. There was no better way of wasting a summer hour than staring at a field of buttercups. So down she went, and along the wing, and so out to the covered path to the gymnasium, for beyond the gymnasium were the buttercups.

As she went down the covered way her eye caught a spot of colour in the grass that bordered the path. At first she took it for a flower petal and was going to ignore it, when she noticed that it was square, and certainly not a petal. She turned back and picked it up. It was a tiny address-book in faded red leather. It looked as if it had formed part of the fittings of a handbag; an old-fashioned handbag probably since one did not see leather nor workmanship like that nowadays. Idly, with her thoughts on the femininity of that vanished bag with its miniature fittings-there would of course have been a little tube of scent, and a gold pencil, and one of those ivory tablets to scribble engagements on — she opened it, and read, on a page crowded with writing in a tiny script: “Path. anat. changes as in traumatic. Fibrin in synov. memb. Tissues contr. by fibr. and folds of caps. joined to bone. Anchylosis. Fever.”

It meant nothing to Lucy as information but its meaning was obvious. She turned the pages, finding nearly all of them crowded with the same succinct information. Even the X page — devoted by the keepers of address-books to measurements for new curtains or that good story that would do for the W.R.I. speech next Tuesday — even the X page had cryptic remarks about rays. What bowled Lucy over was the comprehensiveness of it; the premeditation. This was no product of a last-minute panic; it was a cold-blooded insurance against failure. By the neatness and method shown in the compiling, it looked as though the entries had been made as each subject was studied. Had the notebook been of a normal size, in fact, it would have been nothing more than a legitimate précis of a subject. But no one making a précis would have chosen a book not much larger than a good-sized postage stamp when an equally portable but normal-sized notebook could be had for a few pence. The use of a book so tiny that a mapping pen had been necessary in order to make the entries legible could have only one explanation.

Lucy knew very well what had happened. Rouse had pulled out her handkerchief as she ran. She had never before carried the little book in a pocket, and her mind was divided urgently between the bad paper she had done and the fear of being late for gymnastics, so there was no care in the pulling out of the handkerchief. And so the little book dropped on to the grass at the edge of the path.

She walked on beyond the gymnasium and through the five-barred gate into the field, but she had no eye for the buttercups. She walked on slowly down the field to the coolness under the willows and the quiet green water. She hung over the rail of the bridge watching the weeds trail and the occasional fish dart, and thought about Rouse. There was no name on the fly-leaf, nor as far as she could see any means of identification in the book itself. Most schools taught script as well as current form in writing nowadays; and script was much less easily recognisable than current writing. A handwriting expert would no doubt be easily able to trace the author, but to what end? There was no evidence that the book had been used for any illegitimate purpose; no evidence even that it had been compiled with any sinister intent — although the presumption was strong. If she handed it over to Henrietta as lost property what would happen? No one would claim it, and Henrietta would be faced with the fact that one of her Seniors had prepared a précis that could be conveniently palmed at an examination.

If nothing was ever said about the book, then Rouse’s punishment would be a perpetual and life-long doubt as to what had become of it. Lucy felt that such a punishment fitted the crime admirably. She thumbed the tiny India-paper pages once more, wondered again what Edwardian elegancy had given it birth, and, leaning over, dropped it into the water.

As she walked back to the house she wondered how Rouse had managed the other Final Examinations. Pathology could be no less easy to memorise than Kinesiology or any of the other obscurities studied by the budding P.T.I. How had Rouse, the difficult “study,” managed with these? Was the little red leather book only one of five or six? Did one invest in a mapping pen for one subject only? One could, she supposed, buy very tiny address books if one searched long enough; though not perhaps so fine or so tiny as the little red one. It may have been the possession of the little red one which first put the thought of insurance against failure into Rouse’s mind.

She remembered that the result of the previous examinations would be exhibited on the letter-board by the students’ entrance, so instead of walking round to the front of the house as she had meant to she turned in at the quadrangle door. There were several Junior lists pinned to the green baize, and three Senior lists. Lucy read them with interest.

          FINAL PHYSIOLOGY

   _Honours_

      Mary Innes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93

   _First Class_

      Wilhelmina Hasselt. . . . . . . . . 87
      Pamela Nash. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  86
      Sheena Stewart. . . . . . . . . . . . . 82
      Pauline Lucas. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 79
      Janet Gage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 79
      Barbara Rouse. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 77

   _Second Class_

      Dorothy Litlejohn. . . . . . . . .. 74
      Beatrice Appleyard. . . . . . . . . 71
      Joan Dakers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  69
      Eileen O'Donnell. . . . . . . .   . . .  68
      Margaret Campbell. . . . . . . . .. 67
      Ruth Waymark. . . . . . . . . . . .   . . .  66
      Lilian Mathews. . . . . . . . . . . . . 65

and the rest, below that mark, mere Passes.

Well, Rouse had scraped into a First by two marks, it seemed.

Lucy turned to the next list.

          FINAL MEDICALS

   _First Class_

      Pauline Lucas. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 89
      Pamela Nash. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  89
      Mary Innes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89
      Dorothy Littlejohn. . . . . . . . . 87
      Ruth Waymark. . . . . . . . . . . .   . . .  85
      Wilhelmina Hasselt. . . . . . . . . 82
      Sheena Stewart. . . . . . . . . . . . . 80
      Lilian Mathews. . . . . . . . . . . . . 79
      Barbara Rouse. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 79

   _Second Class_

      Jenny Burton. . . . . . . . . . . .   . . .  73
      Janet Gage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72
      Eileen O'Donnell. . . . . . . .   . . .  71
      Joan Dakers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  69

and the rest mere Passes.

And again Rouse managed to scrape a First.

          FINAL KINESIOLOGY

   _Honours_

      Mary Innes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96

   _First Class_

      Pauline Lucas. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 89
      Pamela Nash. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  88
      Sheena Stewart. . . . . . . . . . . . . 87
      Wilhelmina Hasselt. . . . . . . . . 85
      Ruth Waymark. . . . . . . . . . . .   . . .  80
      Janet Gage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 79
      Joan Dakers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  78
      Barbara Rouse. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 78

Another First! Three Firsts out of three tries. The girl who found written work so difficult? There was surely a strong case for the existence of more little notebooks?

Oh, well; this being Friday, tomorrow would see the end of examinations, and it was not likely that Rouse would, after this morning’s experience, bring any extraneous help to the test tomorrow morning. The little book prepared for tomorrow, if it existed, would be still-born.

While she mused over the lists (it was nice to see that Dakers had managed at least one First) Miss Lux arrived with the results of yesterday’s Final.

“Thank you for bringing up the Path. papers,” she said. “And thank you for invigilating. It helped me to get these done.”

She thumbed the drawing-pin into the board and stood back to look at the list.

          FINAL HYGIENE

   _Honours_

      Mary Innes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91

   _First Class_

      Pamela Nash. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  88
      Wilhelmina Hasselt. . . . . . . . . 87
      Sheena Stewart. . . . . . . . . . . . . 86
      Pauline Lucas. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 81
      Barbara Rouse. . . . . . . . . . . . .. 81

“Barbara Rouse, eighty-one,” Lucy said, before she thought.

“Yes, surprising, isn’t it?” Miss Lux said placidly. “But she works like a black. She is so brilliant in her physical work that I think it maddens her to be far down any list.”

“Innes seems to make a habit of heading the lists.”

“Oh, Innes is wasted here.”

“Why? The more intelligence one brings to a profession the better surely?”

“Yes, but with an intelligence like Innes’s one could head much more thrilling lists than these. It’s a waste.”

“I somehow don’t think that Rouse will get eighty-one for today’s paper,” Lucy said, as they moved away from the board.

“Why? Was she in difficulties?”

“Bogged down,” said Lucy; and hoped that she did not sound too pleased. “What a life it is,” she added, as the five-minute bell rang, and the dripping Seniors came running in from the gymnasium, ripping off their tunics as they tore into the bathrooms for a shower before the gong went. “When you think of the leisurely way we acquired knowledge. At university, I mean. If we sat a final examination, the rest of the day would almost certainly be our own to recover in. But these young creatures do it as part of their time-table.”

From the bathrooms came cursing and chaos. “Oh, Donnie, you swine, that was my shower!” “Mark, you brute, get off my foot!” “Oh, no, you don’t, my girl; these are my tights!” “God, look at my blisters!” “Kick over my shoe, Greengage, the floor’s sopping.” “Must you shoot the cold water round like that, you chump!”

“They like it, you know,” Lux said. “In their heart they like the rush and the overwork. It makes them feel important. Very few of them will ever have any legitimate reason for feeling important, and so it is comforting for them to have the image of it at least.”

“Cynic,” said Lucy.

“No, psychologist.” She inclined her head towards the row as they moved away. “It sounds like a free fight, doesn’t it? Everyone sounds desperate and furious. But it is all play-acting. In five minutes they will be sitting like good children in the dining-room with not a hair out of place.”

And so they were. When the Staff filed in to the top table five minutes later, there were the scramblers of the bathroom, standing dutifully behind their chairs, calm, and combed, and neat, their interest already absorbed by the thought of food. Truly, they were children. Whatever heartbreaks they suffered would be forgotten in tomorrow’s toy. It was absurd to think of them as harassed adults, trembling on the precipice edge of break-down. They were volatile children; their griefs were loud, and vocal, and transient. For five days now, ever since The Nut Tart had been so knowing under the cedar tree last Saturday afternoon, she had looked for some hint of abnormality, of aberration, of lack of control, and what had she found? One very normal and highly controlled piece of dishonesty; unremarkable except for its neatness.

“Isn’t it nice,” Henrietta said, helping out something that looked like cheese-and-vegetable pie, “I’ve got a post in Wales for little Miss Thomas. Near Aberystwyth. I am so delighted.”

“A very soporific atmosphere, Wales,” Madame Lefevre said, consideringly; blasting Henrietta’s whole conception with five gentle words.

“Yes,” said Miss Lux, “who is going to keep her awake?”

“It’s not who is going to keep her awake, it’s who is going to wake her in the first place,” Wragg said, with a greedy eye on the pie. Wragg was still near enough her College days to be possessed of a large hunger and no gastronomic judgment.

“Wales is her native atmosphere,” Henrietta said, repressive, “and I have no doubt she will know how to deal with it. In any case she is not likely to have any great success outside Wales; the Welsh are extraordinarily provincial, using the word in its literal sense. I have noticed before how they gravitate back to their own province. It is as well for them to go there in the first place if the chance offers. And luckily, in this case, it has offered very conveniently. The junior gymnast of three. That will suit Miss Thomas very nicely. She has no great initiative, I’m afraid.”

“Is Thomas’s the only new post?” Wragg asked, falling on the pie.

“No, there was one that I wanted to discuss with you.”

Aha, thought Lucy, here comes Arlinghurst at last.

“Ling Abbey wants someone to be wholly responsible for the younger children, and to take dancing as well all through the school. That is to say, the dancing would have to be of a high standard. I wanted to give the post to Miss Dakers — she is very good with small children — but I wanted to know what you thought of her dancing, Marie.”

“She is a cow,” said Madame.

“She is very good with little ones, though,” Wragg said.

“A heavy cow,” said Madame.

“It isn’t her personal performance that is important,” Henrietta said. “It is her power to inspire performance in others. Does she understand the subject sufficiently, that is the point?”

“Oh, she knows the difference between three-four time and four-four, certainly.”

“I saw Dakers teaching the babies at West Larborough their dances for their do last Christmas,” Wragg said, “and she was wonderful. I was there to crit. her, and I was so fascinated I forgot to make any notes at all. I think she would be just right for that post.”

“Well, Marie.”

“I can’t imagine why anyone bothers,” Madame said. “The dancing at Ling Abbey is quite frightful anyhow.”

This Pilatian washing of hands, in spite of its negative quality, seemed positive enough to all concerned. It was apparent that Dakers was going to Ling Abbey. And since Ling Abbey was a good place to be going to — if one had to be going to a school — Lucy was glad for her. She glanced down the room to where, even above this babel, Dakers’ high voice could be heard italicising her opinion of the Pathology paper. “I said that a joint went gummy, my dear, and I’m certain that’s not the technical word.”

“Shall I warn them both, Miss Hodge?” Wragg asked, later.

(Warn?)

“No, just Miss Thomas today, I think. I shall tell Miss Dakers tomorrow. It is better to spread the excitement out.”

As the Staff rose from their table and filed out, Wragg turned to the politely standing and temporarily silent students and said: “Miss Hodge will see Miss Thomas in her office when luncheon is over.”

This was apparently a ritual pronouncement, for the buzz broke out almost before the Staff had reached the door. “A post, Tommy!” “Congrats, Tommy.” “Hoorah, old Thomas.” “Up the Welsh!” “Hope it’s a thousand a year, Tom.” “Iss nott thatt the lucky thing, now!” “Cheers, Tommy!”

And still no one had mentioned Arlinghurst.

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