Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey

9

When Lucy first heard Arlinghurst mentioned it was not by any of the Staff but by the students themselves. She had spent Saturday afternoon with Fröken and her mother, helping to finish the Swedish folk costumes which the Juniors would wear for some of the country dances at the Demonstration. It was a lovely day and they had taken the piles of bright primitive colour to the furthest corner of the garden, where they could sit and look over the English countryside. Both cricket and tennis matches were “away” this week, so the garden was deserted, and no toiling figures marred the virgin green of the field beyond the stream. They had sewed in great beatitude, and Fru Gustavsen seemed to have reported well of Lucy to her daughter, for Fröken’s reticence had largely vanished, and Lucy was delighted to find that a young woman who had always reminded her of sunlight on snow was the possessor of a rich warm chuckle and a sense of humour to match. (It is true that Lucy’s sewing considerably shook Fru Gustavsen’s faith in her, but much must be forgiven the English.) Fru Gustavsen had gone back to the subject of food, and had held forth at great length on the virtues of something called “frikadellar”; which, it appeared, was a kind of mince. Lucy (whose cooking consisted of chopping up a few tomatoes in a pan at the last moment, adding whatever was to be cooked, and pouring some cream over the lot) thought it a very lengthy and complicated affair, and decided to have nothing to do with it.

“Are you doing anything tonight?” Fröken had asked. “My mother and I are going into Larborough to the theatre. She has not yet seen an English company. We would be delighted if you would care to come with us.”

Lucy explained that tonight she was going to a party in Stewart’s room to celebrate her Post. “I understand that Staff don’t usually go, but I am not real Staff.”

Fröken slid an eye round at her and said: “You ought to be. You are very good for them.”

That medicinal phrase again. As if she were a prescription.

“How?”

“Oh, in ways too subtle for my English — and much too subtle for the German language. It is, a little, that you wear heels; a little, that you have written a book; a little, that they don’t have to be just a tiny bit afraid of you; a little that — oh, a thousand littles. You have come at a good time for them; a time when they need a distraction that is not — distracting. Oh, dear, I wish my English was better.”

“You mean, I am a dose of alkali on an acid stomach.”

Fröken gave her unexpected chuckle. “Yes, just that. I am sorry you will not be coming to the theatre, but it is a great mark of favour to be invited to a students’ party, and you will enjoy it, I think. Everyone will be happy tonight, now that the examinations are over. Once they come back from the match they are free for the week-end. So they will be gay this Saturday. Off the chain,” she added, in English.

And off the chain they certainly were. As Lucy came in by the quadrangle door, leaving Fröken and her mother to go round to the front of the house where they lived, a blast of sound rose up round her. The rush of bath water on two floors, the calling of innumerable voices, the drumfire of feet on bare oak stairs, singing, whistling, crooning. Both teams had apparently come back — victorious to judge by the atmosphere — and the place was alive. The place was also excited, and one word was woven like a leit-motif through the babble. Arlinghurst. Arlinghurst. As she walked past the ground-floor bathrooms on her way to the stairs, she heard the first of it. “Have you heard, my dear! Arlinghurst!

“What?”

Arling-hurst!

A tap was turned off.

“I can’t hear with the blasted water. Where, did you say?”

“Arlinghurst!”

“I don’t believe it.”

“But yes,” said another voice, “it’s true.”

“It can’t be; they don’t send First Posters to Arlinghurst.”

“No, really it’s true. Miss Hodge’s sec. told Jolly in confidence and Jolly told her sister in the village and she told Miss Nevill at The Teapot, and Miss Nevill talked about it to The Nut Tart when she was there to tea this afternoon with that cousin of hers.”

“Is that gigolo here again?”

“I say, Arlinghurst! Who would believe it! Whom do you think they’ll give it to?”

“Oh, that’s easy.”

“Yes, Innes of course.”

“Lucky Innes.”

“Oh, well, she deserves it.”

“Just imagine. Arlinghurst!

And on the first-floor it was the same; the rushing of bath water, the splashing, the babble, and Arlinghurst.

“But who told you?”

“The Nut Tart.”

“Oh, my dear, she’s dippy, everyone knows.”

“Well, it’s a cert for Innes, anyhow, so it’s nothing to do with me. I’ll probably wind up in the L.C.C.”

“She may be dippy, but she’s not M.D., and she’d got it pat. She didn’t even know what Arlinghurst was, so she wasn’t making it up. She said: ‘Is it a school?’”

Is it a school! My hat!”

“I say, won’t The Hodge be just dizzy with pride, my dears!”

“D’you suppose she’ll be dizzy enough to give us tart for supper instead of that milk pudding?”

“I expect Jolly made the puddings yesterday and they’re all standing waiting in rows on the hatch.”

“Oh, well, they can wait as far as I’m concerned. I’m for Larborough.”

“Me, too. I say, is Innes there?”

“No, she’s finished. She’s dressing.”

“I say, let’s throw Innes a party, all of us, instead of letting her give a little private one. After all, it’s —”

“Yes. Let’s do that, shall we? After all, it isn’t every day that someone gets a post like that, and Innes deserves it, and everyone will be glad about it, and —”

“Yes, let’s have a do in the common-room.”

“After all, it’s a sort of communal honour. A decoration for Leys.”

“Arlinghurst! Who’d have believed it?”

“Arlinghurst!”

Lucy wondered if the meek little secretary’s indiscretion had been prompted by the knowledge that the news was about to be made public. Even the cautious and secretive Henrietta could not sit on such a piece of information much longer; if for no other reason than that Arlinghurst would be expecting an answer. Lucy supposed that Henrietta had been waiting until the “bad” week was over before providing her sensation; she could not help feeling that it was a very neat piece of timing.

As she walked along the corridor to her cell at the end, she met Innes, buttoning herself into a fresh cotton frock.

“Well,” said Lucy, “it seems to have been a successful afternoon.”

“The row, you mean?” Innes said. “Yes, we won. But the row is not a war chant. It’s a paean of praise that they will never have to live this week again.”

Lucy noticed how unconsciously she had used the word “they.” She wondered for a moment at the girl’s calm. Had she, possibly, not yet heard about the Arlinghurst vacancy? And then, as Innes moved from the dimness of the corridor into the light from Dakers’ wide-open door, Lucy saw the radiance on her face. And her own heart turned over in sympathy. That was how it felt, was it? Like seeing Heaven opened.

You look happy, anyhow,” she said, falling back on bald platitude since there were no words to describe what was shining in Innes’s eyes.

“To use a phrase of O’Donnell’s, I wouldn’t call the king my cousin,” Innes said, as they moved apart. “You are coming to Stewart’s party, aren’t you? That’s good. We’ll meet again there.”

Lucy powdered her nose, and decided to go over to the “old house” and see how the Staff were reacting to the news of Arlinghurst. Perhaps there would still be some tea; she had forgotten all about tea and so apparently had the Gustavsens. She rearranged the bottle of champagne which was waiting for Stewart’s party in the ice she had begged from Miss Joliffe, regretted yet once more that the Larborough wine merchant had not been able to supply a better year, but trusted (rightly) that Rheims and all its products were simply “champagne” to a student.

To go over to the “old house” one had to pass both the Seniors’ bedrooms and the first floor bathrooms again, and it seemed to Lucy that the orchestration of sound had reached a new pitch of intensity, as more and more students heard the news and passed it on and commented on it above the roar of water, and banging of doors, and the thudding of feet. It was strange to come from that blare of sound and excitement into the quiet, the cream paint and mahogany, the tall windows and space, the waiting peace of the “house.” She crossed the wide landing and opened the door of the drawing-room. Here too there was quiet, and she had shut the door behind her and come forward into the room before becoming aware of the exact quality of that quiet. Before realising, in fact, that the quiet was electric, and that she had walked into the middle of a Staff row. A row, moreover, if one was to judge from the faces, of most unholy proportions. Henrietta was standing, flushed and defensive and stubborn, with her back to the fireplace, and the others were staring at her, accusing and angry.

Lucy would have beaten a retreat, but someone had automatically poured out a cup of tea and thrust it at her, and she could hardly put it down again and walk out. Though she would have liked to for more reasons than one. The tea was almost black and quite cold.

No one took any notice of Lucy. Either they accepted her as one of themselves, or they were too absorbed in their quarrel to realise her fully. Their eyes had acknowledged her presence with the same absent acquiescence that greets a ticket collector in a railway carriage; a legitimate intruder but not a partaker in discussion.

“It’s monstrous,” Madame was saying. “Monstrous!” For the first time within Lucy’s experience she had discarded her Récamier pose and was sitting with both slender feet planted firmly on the floor.

Miss Lux was standing behind her, her bleak face even bleaker than usual, and two very unusual spots of bright red high on her cheek-bones. Fröken was sitting back in one of the chintz-covered chairs looking contemptuous and sullen. And Wragg, hovering by the window, looked as much confused and embarrassed as angry; as if, having so lately come up from the mortal world, she found this battling of Olympians disconcerting.

“I fail to see anything monstrous about it,” Henrietta said with an attempt at her Head Girl manner; but even to Lucy’s ears it had a synthetic quality. Henrietta was obviously in a spot.

“It is more than monstrous,” Madame said, “it is very nearly criminal.”

“Marie, don’t be absurd.”

“Criminal from more than one point of view. You propose to palm off an inferior product on someone who expects the best; and you propose at the same time to lower the credit of Leys so that it will take twenty years to recover it, if it ever recovers. And for what, I ask you? For what? Just to satisfy some whim of your own!”

“I fail to see where the whim comes in,” Henrietta snapped, dropping some of her Great Dane dignity at this thrust. “No one here can deny that she is a brilliant student, that she has worked hard and deserved her reward. Even her theoretical work has been consistently good this term.”

“Not consistently,” said Miss Lux in a voice like water dropping on to a metal pan. “According to the paper I corrected last night, she could not even get a Second in Pathology.”

It was here that Lucy stopped wondering what to do with her tea, and pricked up her ears.

“Oh, dear, that is a pity,” Henrietta said, genuinely distracted from the main point by this news. “She was doing so well. So much better than I had dared to hope.”

“The girl is a moron, and you know it,” Madame said.

“But that is nonsense. She is one of the most brilliant students Leys has ever —”

“For God’s sake, Henrietta, stop saying that. You know as well as any of us what they mean by brilliant.” She flourished a sheet of blue note-paper in her thin brown hand, and holding it at arm’s length (she was “getting on” was Madame, and she hated to wear glasses) read aloud. “‘We wondered if, among your leaving students, you had one brilliant enough to fill this place. Someone who would be “Arlinghurst” from the beginning, and so more part of the school and its traditions than a migrant can ever be, and at the same time continue the Leys connection that has been so fortunate for us.’ The Leys connection that has been so fortunate! And you propose to end it by sending them Rouse!”

“I don’t know why you are all so stubbornly against her. It can be nothing but prejudice. She has been a model student, and no one has ever said a word against her until now. Until I am prepared to give her the rewards of her work. And then you are all suddenly furious. I am entirely at a loss. Fröken! Surely you will bear me out. You can never have had a better pupil than Miss Rouse.”

“Mees Rouse is a very good gymnast. She is also, I understand from Mees Wragg, a very fine games player. But when she goes out from thees plaace it will not matter any longer that she can do a handstand better than anyone else and that she ees a good half-back. What will matter then is character. And what Mees Rouse has of character is neither very much nor very admirable.”

“Fröken!” Henrietta sounded shocked. “I thought you liked her.”

“Did you?” The two cold, disinterested little words said: I am expected to like all my students; if you had known whom I liked or disliked I should be unworthy.

“Well, you asked Sigrid, and you’ve certainly been told,” Madame said, delighted. “I could not have put it better myself.”

“Perhaps —” began Miss Wragg. “I mean, it is for gymnastics they want her. They are separate departments at Arlinghurst: the gym., and the games, and the dancing; one person for each. So perhaps Rouse wouldn’t be too bad.”

Lucy wondered whether this tentative offering was inspired by Rouse’s performance for Miss Wragg’s department at half-back, or by a desire to smooth things over and draw the two edges of the yawning gap even a little nearer.

“Doreen, my pet,” said Madame, in the tolerant tones that one uses to a half-wit, “what they are looking for is not someone who ‘wouldn’t be too bad’; what they are looking for is someone so outstanding that she can step straight from College to be one of the three gymnasts at the best girls’ school in England. Does that sound to you like Miss Rouse, do you think?”

“No. No, I suppose not. It does sound like Innes, I must admit.”

“Quite so. It does sound like Innes. And it is beyond the wit of man why it doesn’t sound like Innes to Miss Hodge.” She fixed Henrietta with her enormous black eyes, and Henrietta winced.

“I’ve told you! There is a vacancy at the Wycherley Orthopædic Hospital that would be ideal for Miss Innes. She is excellent at medical work.”

“God give me patience! The Wycherley Orthopædic Hospital!”

“Doesn’t the unity of the opposition persuade you that you are wrong, Miss Hodge?” It was Miss Lux, incisive even in her anger. “Being a minority of one is not a very strong position.”

But that was the wrong thing to say. If Henrietta had ever been open to persuasion, she was by now far past that stage. She reacted to Miss Lux’s logic with a spurt of fury.

“My position as a minority may not be very strong, Miss Lux, but my position as Principal of this college is unquestioned, and what you think or do not think of my decisions is immaterial. I took you into my confidence, as I always have, about the disposal of this vacancy. That you do not agree with me is, of course, regrettable, but of no consequence. It is for me to make decisions here, and in this case I have made it. You are free to disapprove, of course; but not to interfere, I am glad to say.”

She picked up her cup with a hand that shook, and put it away on the tea-tray, as was her habit; and then made for the door. Lumbering and hurt, like a wounded elephant, thought Lucy.

“Just a minute, Henrietta!” Madame said, her eyes having lighted on Lucy and a spark of amused malice appearing therein. “Let us ask the outsider and the trained psychologist.”

“But I am not a trained psychologist,” said poor Lucy.

“Just let us hear what Miss Pym thinks.”

“I don’t know what Miss Pym has to do with the vacancies —”

“No, not about the appointment. Just what she thinks of these two students. Come along, Miss Pym. Give us your frank opinion. After a mere week among us you cannot be accused of bias.”

“You mean Rouse and Innes?” asked Lucy, playing for time. Henrietta had paused with her hand on the door. “I don’t know them, of course; but it certainly surprises me that Miss Hodge should think of giving that appointment to Rouse. I don’t think she is at all — in fact I think she would be quite the wrong person.”

Henrietta, to whom this was apparently the last straw, cast her an et tu Brute look and blundered out of the room, with a muttered remark about it being “surprising what a pretty face can do to influence people.” Which Lucy took to refer to Innes, not to herself.

In the drawing-room was a very crowded silence.

“I thought I knew all about Henrietta,” Madame said at last, reflective and puzzled.

“I thought one could trust her to do justice,” Miss Lux said, bitter.

Fröken got to her feet without a word, and still looking contemptuous and sullen, walked out of the room. They watched her go with gloomy approbation; her silence was comment enough.

“It is a pity that this should have happened, when everything was going so well,” Wragg said, producing another of her unhelpful offerings. She was like someone running round with black-currant lozenges to the victims of an earthquake. “Everyone has been so pleased with their posts, and —”

“Do you think she will come to her senses when she has had time to think it over?” Lux asked Madame.

“She has been thinking it over for nearly a week. Or rather she has had it settled in her mind for nearly a week; so that by now it has become established fact and she will not be able to see it any other way.”

“And yet she couldn’t have been sure about it — I mean, sure of our reaction — or she would not have kept it to herself until now. Perhaps when she thinks it over —”

“When she thinks it over she will remember that Catherine Lux questioned the Royal Prerogative-”

“But there is a Board in the background. There is no question of Divine Right. There must be someone who can be appealed to against her decision. An injustice like this can’t be allowed to happen just because —”

“Of course there is a Board. You met them when you got the job here. You see one of them when she comes to supper on the Friday nights when the lecture happens to be on Yoga, or Theosophy, or Voodoo, or what not. A greedy slug in amber beads and black satin, with the brains of a louse. She thinks Henrietta is wonderful. So do the rest of the Board. And so, let me say it here and now, do I. That is what makes it all so shocking. That Henrietta, the shrewd Henrietta who built this place up from something not much better than a dame’s school, should be so blind, so suddenly devoid of the most elementary judgment — it’s fantastic. Fantastic!”

“But there must be something we can do —”

“My good if tactless Catherine,” Madame said rising gracefully to her feet, “all we can do is go to our rooms and pray.” She reached for the scarf that even in the hottest weather draped her thin body as she moved from one room to another. “There are also the lesser resorts of aspirin and a hot bath. They may not move the Almighty but they are beneficial to the blood pressure.” She floated out of the room; as nearly without substance as a human being can be.

“If Madame can’t do anything to influence Miss Hodge, I don’t see that anyone else can,” Wragg said.

“I certainly can’t,” Lux said. “I just rub her the wrong way. Even if I didn’t, even if I had the charm of Cleopatra and she hung on my every word, how can one reduce a mental astigmatism like that? She is quite honest about it, you see. She is one of the most honest persons I have ever met. She really sees the thing like that; she really sees Rouse as everything that is admirable and deserving, and thinks we are prejudiced and oppositious. How can one alter a thing like that?” She stared a moment, blankly, at the bright window, and then picked up her book. “I must go and change, if I can find a free bathroom.”

Her going left Lucy alone with Miss Wragg, who obviously wanted to go too but did not know how to make her departure sufficiently graceful.

“It is a mess, isn’t it?” she proffered.

“Yes, it seems a pity,” Lucy said, thinking how inadequately it summed up the situation; she was still stunned by the new aspect presented to her. She became aware that Wragg was still in her out-door clothes. “When did you hear about it?”

“I heard the students talking about it downstairs — when we came in from the match, I mean — and I bolted up here to see if it was true, and I walked straight into it. Into the row, I mean. It is a pity; everything was going so well.”

“You know that the students take it for granted that Innes will get the post,” Lucy said.

“Yes,” Wragg sounded sober. “I heard them in the bathrooms. It was a natural thing to think. All of us would take it for granted that Innes would be the one. She is not very good for me — in games, I mean — but she is a good coach. She understands what she is doing. And of course in other things she is brilliant. She really should have been a doctor or something brainy like that. Oh, well, I suppose I must go and get out of these things.” She hesitated a moment. “Don’t think we do this often, will you, Miss Pym? This is the first time I have seen the Staff het up about anything. We are all such good friends as a rule. That’s what makes this such a pity. I wish someone could change Miss Hodge’s point of view. But if I know her no one can do that.”

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