Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey


Monday was an anticlimax. Lucy came back into a community that had talked itself out on the subject of Arlinghurst. Both Staff and students had had a whole day’s leisure in which to spread themselves over the sensation, and by night-time there was nothing more to be said; indeed every possible view had already been repeated ad nauseam; so that with the resumption of routine on Monday the affair had already slipped into the background. Since she still had her breakfast brought to her by the devoted Miss Morris, she was not there to see Innes’s first public appearance; and by the time she came face to face with the students as a body, at lunch, habit had smoothed over the rough places and College looked much as usual.

Innes’s face was composed, but Lucy thought that its normal withdrawn expression had become a shut-down look; whatever emotions she still wrestled with, they were under hatches and battened down. Rouse looked more than ever like Aunt Celia’s cat, Philadelphia, and Lucy longed to shut her out-of-doors and let her mew. The only curiosity she had had about the affair was to know how Rouse took that unexpected announcement; she had even gone the length of asking Miss Lux on the way down to lunch.

“What did Rouse look like when she heard the news?”

“Ectoplasm,” said Miss Lux.

“Why ectoplasm?” Lucy had asked, puzzled.

“It is the most revolting thing I can think of.”

So her curiosity remained unsatisfied. Madame twitted her about her desertion of them yesterday, but no one wanted to harp on the probable reason for it. Already the shadow of the Demonstration, only four days away, loomed large over them all; Arlinghurst was a yesterday’s sensation and already a little stale. College was once more into its stride.

Indeed only two small incidents livened the monotony of routine between Monday and Friday.

The first was Miss Hodge’s offer to Innes of the post at the Wycherley Orthopaedic Hospital, and Innes’s refusal of it. The post was then offered to and gratefully accepted by a much-relieved O’Donnell. (“Darling, how nice!” Dakers had said. “Now I can sell you my clinic overalls which I shall never use again, my dear.” And sell them she did; and was so delighted to have good hard cash in her purse so near the end of term that she instantly began to hawk the rest of her belongings round the wing, and was only dissuaded when Stewart asked caustically if the safety-pins were standard equipment.)

The second incident was the arrival of Edward Adrian, thespian.

This unlooked-for occurrence took place on Wednesday. Wednesday was swimming afternoon, and all the Juniors and such Seniors as had no afternoon patients were down at the pool. Lucy, who by prayer, counting, and determination, could just get across the bath, took no part in this exercise in spite of warm invitations to come in and be cool. She spent half an hour watching the gambols, and then walked back to the house for tea. She was crossing the hall to the stairs when one of the Disciples — she thought it was Luke, but she was still not quite certain about them — dashed out of the clinic door and said:

“Oh, Miss Pym, would you be an angel and sit on Albert’s feet for a moment?”

“Sit on Albert’s feet?” repeated Lucy, not quite sure that she had heard aright.

“Yes, or hold them. But it’s easier to sit on them. The hole in the strap has given way, and there isn’t another that isn’t in use.” She ushered the dazed Lucy into the quiet of the clinic, where students swathed in unfamiliar white linen superintended their patients’ contortions, and indicated a plinth where a boy of eleven or so was lying face down. “You see,” she said, holding up a leather strap, “the thing has torn away from the hole, and the hole in front is too tight and the one behind too loose. If you would just hang on to his feet for a moment; if you wouldn’t rather sit on them.”

Lucy said hastily that she would prefer to hang on.

“All right. This is Miss Pym, Albert. She is going to be the strap for the nonce.”

“Hullo, Miss Pym,” said Albert, rolling an eye round at her.

Luke — if it was she — seized the boy under the shoulders and yanked him forward till only his legs remained on the plinth. “Now clamp a hand over each ankle and hang on, Miss Pym,” she commanded, and Lucy obeyed, thinking how well this breezy bluntness was going to suit Manchester and how extremely heavy a small boy of eleven was when you were trying to keep his ankles down. Her eyes strayed from what Luke was doing to the others, so strange and remote in this new guise. Was there no end to the facets of this odd life? Even the ones she knew well, like Stewart, were different, seen like this. Their movements were slower, and there was a special bright artificially-interested voice that they used to patients. There were no smiles and no chatter; just a bright hospital quiet. “Just a little further. That’s right.” “That is looking much better today, isn’t it!” “Now, we’ll try that once more and then that will be all for today.”

Through a gap in Hasselt’s overall as she moved, Lucy caught a glimpse of silk, and realised that she was already changed for dancing, there being no interval between finishing her patient and appearing in the gym. Either she had already had tea, or would snatch a cup en route.

While she was thinking of the oddity of this life of dancing silks under hospital clothes, a car passed the window and stopped at the front door. A very fashionable and expensive car of inordinate length and great glossiness, chauffeur-driven. It was so seldom nowadays that one saw anyone but an invalid driven by a chauffeur that she watched with interest to see who might emerge from it.

Beau’s mother, perhaps? That was the kind of car that went with a butler, undoubtedly.

But what came out of the car was a youngish man — she could see only his back — in the kind of suit one sees anywhere between St. James’s Street and the Duke of York’s Steps any time between October and the end of June. What with the chauffeur and the suit Lucy ran through in her mind the available Royalties, but could not find an appropriate one; Royalty drove itself nowadays, anyhow.

“Thank you very much, Miss Pym. You’ve been an enormous help. Say thank you, Albert.”

“Thank you, Miss Pym,” Albert said dutifully; and then, catching her eye, winked at her. Lucy winked back, gravely.

At this moment O’Donnell erupted into the room clutching the large sifter of talcum powder that she had been having refilled by Fröken in the further room, and hissed in an excited whisper: “What do you think! Edward Adrian! In the car. Edward Adrian!

“Who cares?” Stewart said, relieving her of the sifter. “You were a damned long time getting the talc.”

Lucy closed the clinic door behind her and emerged into the hall. O’Donnell had spoken truth. It was Edward Adrian who was standing in the hall. And Miss Lux had also spoken truth. For Edward Adrian was examining himself in the mirror.

As Lucy climbed the stairs she met Miss Lux coming down, and as she turned to the second flight could see their meeting.

“Hullo, Teddy,” Miss Lux said, without enthusiasm.

“Catherine!” Adrian said, with the most delighted enthusiasm, going forward to meet her as if about to embrace her. But her cool solitary hand, outstretched in conventional greeting, stopped him.

“What are you doing here? Don’t tell me you have developed a ‘niece’ at Leys.”

“Don’t be a beast, Cath. I came to see you, of course. Why didn’t you tell me you were here? Why didn’t you come to see me, so that we could have had a meal together, and a talk about old ——”

“Miss Pym,” Miss Lux’s clear accents came floating up the staircase, “don’t run away. I want you to meet a friend of mine.”

“But Catherine ——” she heard him say in quick low protest.

“It’s the famous Miss Pym,” Miss Lux said, in a you’ll-like-that-you-silly-creature tone, “and a great admirer of yours,” she added as a final snare.

Does he realise how cruel she is being? she wondered as she waited for them to come up to her, or is his self-satisfaction too great to be pierced by her rating of him?

As they went together into the deserted drawing-room, she remembered suddenly Stewart’s description of him as a “weary-looking creature who looked like a moulting eagle” and thought how apt it was. He had good looks of a sort, but although he could not be much older than forty — forty-three or four, perhaps — they already had a preserved air. Without his paints and his pencils and his toupees, he looked tired and worn, and his dark hair was receding. Lucy felt suddenly sorry for him. With the youth and strength and beauty of Desterro’s Rick fresh in her mind, she found the spoiled and famous actor somehow pitiful.

He was being charming to her — he knew all about her book; he read all the best-sellers — but with one eye on Miss Lux while she examined what was left of tea, inspected the contents of the tea-pot, and apparently deciding that a little more hot water would meet the case, lit the burner under the tea-kettle again. There was something in that consciousness of Catherine Lux’s presence that puzzled Lucy. It wasn’t in the part, as she had imagined the part for him. The successful star calling on the humble lecturer at a girls’ college should surely show more detachment; more willingness to peacock in front of the stranger, after the manner of actors. He was “doing his act” for her, of course; all his charm was turned full on, and it was a very considerable charm; but it was mere reflex action. All his interest was centred round the cool scraggy woman who rated him at some washy tea. It couldn’t be very often, Lucy thought with amusement, that Edward Adrian arrived on any doorstep without trumpets; for nearly twenty years — ever since that first heart-breaking Romeo had brought tears to the eyes of critics sick of the very name of Montague — his comings and goings had been matters of moment, he had moved in a constant small eddy of importance; people ran to do his bidding and waited for his pleasure; they gave him things and asked nothing in return; they gave up things for him and expected no thanks. He was Edward Adrian, household word, two feet high on the bills, national possession.

But he had come out this afternoon to Leys to see Catherine Lux, and his eyes followed her round like an eager dog’s. The Catherine whose estimate of him was a little hot water added to the tea-pot. It was all very strange.

“I hope you are doing well in Larborough, Teddy?” Lux asked, with more politeness than interest.

“Oh, yes; fair. Too many schools, but one must put up with that when one plays Shakespeare.”

“Don’t you like playing to young people?” Lucy asked, remembering that the young people she had met lately had not greatly liked having to listen to him.

“Well — they don’t make the best audience in the world, you know. One would prefer adults. And they get cut rates, of course; which doesn’t help the takings. But we look on it as an investment,” he added with generous tolerance. “They are the future theatre-goers, and must be trained up in the way they should go.”

Lucy thought that the training, if judged by results, had been singularly unsuccessful. The way the young went was in a bee-line to something called Flaming Barriers. It wasn’t even true to say that they “didn’t go” to the theatre; it was much more positive than that: they fled from it.

However, this was a polite tea-party and no time for home truth. Lucy asked if he was coming to the Demonstration — at which Miss Lux looked annoyed. He had never heard of a Demonstration and was all eagerness. It was years since he had seen anyone do any more P.T. than putting their toes under the wardrobe and waving their torso about. Dancing? Goodness, was there dancing? But of course he would come. And what was more, they should come back with him to the theatre and have supper with him afterwards.

“I know Catherine hates the theatre, but you could stand it for once, couldn’t you, Catherine? It’s Richard III on Friday night, so you wouldn’t have to put up with me in a romantic effort. It isn’t a good play, but the production is wonderful, even if it is I who say it that shouldn’t.”

“A criminal libel on a fine man, a blatant piece of political propaganda, and an extremely silly play,” Lux opined.

Adrian smiled broadly, like a schoolboy. “All right, but sit through it and you shall see how good a supper the Midland at Larborough can provide when egged on by a miserable actor. They even have a Johannisberger.”

A faint colour showed in Lux’s cheek at that.

“You see I remember what you like. Johannisberger, as you once remarked, tastes of flowers, and will take the stink of the theatre out of your nostrils.”

“I never said it stank. It creaks.”

“Of course it does. It has been on its last legs for quite two hundred years.”

“Do you know what it reminds me of? The Coronation Coach. A lumbering anachronism; an absurd convention that we go on making use of because of inherited affection. A gilded relic —”

The kettle boiled, and Miss Lux poured the hot water into the pot.

“Give Miss Pym something to eat, Teddy.”

An almost nursery tone, Lucy thought, taking one of the curled-up sandwiches from the plate he offered her. Was that what attracted him? Was it a sort of nostalgia for a world where he was taken for granted? He would not like such a world for long, that was certain, but it was quite possible that he wearied sometimes of the goldfish life he led, and would find a refreshment in the company of someone to whom he was just Teddy Adrian who used to come in the holidays.

She turned to say something to him, and surprised the look in his eyes as he watched Catherine spurning the various eatables. The amusement, the affection, that lit them might be a brother’s, but there was something else. A— hopelessness, was it? Something like that. Something, anyhow, that had nothing to do with brotherliness; and that was very odd in a Great Star looking at the plain and ironic Mistress of Theory at Leys.

She looked across at the unconscious Catherine, and for the first time saw her as Edward Adrian saw her. As a woman with the makings of a belle laide. In this scholastic world one accepted her “good” clothes, her simple hairdressing, her lack of make-up, as the right and appropriate thing, and took her fine bones and lithe carriage for granted. She was just the plain and clever Miss Lux. But in the theatre world how different she would be! That wide supple mouth, those high cheek-bones with the hollow under them, the short straight nose, the good line of the lean jaw — they cried aloud for make-up. From the conventional point of view Lux had the kind of face that, as errand boys say, would “stop a clock”; but from any other view-point it was a face that would stop them eating at the Iris if she walked in at lunch time properly dressed and made-up.

A combination of belle laide and someone who knew him “when” was no inconsiderable attraction. For the rest of tea-time Lucy’s mind was busy with revision.

As soon as she decently could she retired, leaving them to the tête-à-tête that he had so obviously sought; the tête-à-tête that Miss Lux had done her best to deny him. He pleaded once more for a theatre party on Friday night — his car would be there and the Dem. would be over by six o’clock and College supper would be nothing but an anti-climax, and Richard III might be a lot of nonsense but it was lovely to look at, he promised them, and the food at the Midland was really wonderful since they had lured the chef away from Bono in Dover Street, and it was a very long time since he had seen Catherine and he had not talked half enough to the clever Miss Pym who had written that wonderful book, and he was dead sick anyhow of the company of actors who talked nothing but theatre and golf, and just to please him they might come — and altogether what with his practised actor’s charm and his genuine desire that they should say yes, it was agreed that on Friday night they should go back to Larborough with him, witness his production of Richard III, and be rewarded with a good supper and a lift home.

As she crossed to the wing, however, Lucy found herself a little depressed. Yet once more she had been wrong about Miss Lux. Miss Lux was not an unwanted plain woman who found compensation in life by devoting herself to a beautiful younger sister. She was a potentially attractive creature who so little needed compensation that she couldn’t be bothered with one of the most successful and handsome men in the world today.

She had been all wrong about Miss Lux. As a psychologist she began to suspect she was a very good teacher of French.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01