Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey


She was being beaten with knouts by two six-foot cossacks because she persisted in using the old-fashioned safety-pin when progress decreed a zipp-fastener, and the blood had begun to trickle down her back when she woke to the fact that the only thing that was being assaulted was her hearing. The bell was ringing again. She said something that was neither civilised nor cultured, and sat up. No, definitely, not a minute after lunch would she stay. There was a 2.41 from Larborough, and on that 2.41 she would be; her goodbyes said, her duty to friendship done, and her soul filled with the beatitude of escape. She would treat herself to a half-pound box of chocolates on the station platform as a sort of outward congratulation. It would show on the bathroom scales at the end of the week, but who cared?

The thought of the scales reminded her of the civilised and cultured necessity of having a bath. Henrietta had been sorry about its being so far to the staff bathrooms; she had been sorry altogether to put a guest into the student block, but Fröken Gustavsen’s mother from Sweden was occupying the only staff guest-room, and was going to stay for some weeks until she had seen and criticised the result of her daughter’s work when the annual Demonstration would take place at the beginning of the month. Lucy doubted very much whether her bump of locality — a hollow according to her friends — was good enough to take her back to that bathroom. It would be awful to go prowling along those bright empty corridors, arriving perhaps at lecture-rooms unawares. And still more awful to ask in a crowded corridor of up-since-dawners where one could perform one’s belated ablutions.

Lucy’s mind always worked like that. It wasn’t sufficient for it to visualise one horror; it must visualise the opposite one too. She sat so long considering the rival horrors, and enjoying the sensation of doing nothing, that still another bell rang and still another wave of drumming feet and calling voices rose up and swamped the quiet of the morning. Lucy looked at her watch. It was half-past seven.

She had just decided to be uncivilised and uncultured and “go in her mook” as her daily woman called it — after all, what was this immersion in water but a modern fad, and if Charles the Second could afford to smell a little high, who was she, a mere commoner, to girn at missing a bath? — when there was a knock on her door. Rescue was at hand. Oh, joy, oh, glory, her marooned condition was at an end.

“Come in,” she called in the glad tones of a Crusoe welcoming a landing party. Of course Henrietta would come to say good-morning. How silly of her not to have thought of that. She was still at heart the little rabbit who didn’t expect Henrietta to bother about her. Really, she must cultivate a habit of mind more suitable to a Celebrity. Perhaps if she were to do her hair differently, or say over something twenty times a day after the manner of Coué—“Come in!”

But it was not Henrietta. It was a goddess.

A goddess with golden hair, a bright blue linen tunic, sea-blue eyes, and the most enviable pair of legs. Lucy always noticed other women’s legs, her own being a sad disappointment to her.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the goddess. “I forgot that you might not be up. In college we keep such odd hours.”

Lucy thought that it was nice of this heavenly being to take the blame for her sloth.

“I do apologise for interrupting your dressing.” The blue eye came to rest on a mule which was lying in the middle of the floor, and stayed there as if fascinated. It was a pale blue satin mule; very feminine, very thriftless, very feathery. A most undeniable piece of nonsense.

“I’m afraid it is rather silly,” Lucy said.

“If you only knew, Miss Pym, what it is to see an object that is not strictly utilitarian!” And then, as if recalled to her business by the very temptation of straying from it: “My name is Nash. I’m the Head Senior. And I came to say that the Senior students would be very honoured if you would come to tea with them tomorrow. On Sundays we take our tea out into the garden. It is a Senior privilege. And it really is very pleasant out there on a summer afternoon, and we really are looking forward to having you.” She smiled with eager benevolence on Miss Pym.

Lucy explained that she would not be there tomorrow; that she was departing this afternoon.

“Oh, no!” protested the Nash girl; and the genuine feeling in her tone caused Lucy a rush of warmth to the heart. “No, Miss Pym, you mustn’t! You really mustn’t. You have no idea what a god-send you are to us. It’s so seldom that anyone — anyone interesting comes to stay. This place is rather like a convent. We are all so hard-worked that we have no time to think of an outside world; and this is the last term for us Seniors, and everything is very grim and claustrophobic — Final Exams, and the Demonstration, and being found posts, and what not — and we are all feeling like death, and our last scrap of sense of proportion is gone. And then you come, a piece of the outside, a civilised being —” She paused; half laughing, half serious. “You can’t desert us.”

“But you have an outside lecturer every Friday,” Lucy pointed out. It was the first time in her life she had been a god-send to anyone, and she was determined to take the assertion with a grain of salt. She didn’t at all like the gratified feeling that was sniffing round the edge of her emotions.

Miss Nash explained with clarity, point, and no small bitterness that the last three lecturers had been: an octogenarian on Assyrian inscriptions, a Czech on Central Europe, and a bonesetter on scoliosis.

“What is scoliosis?” asked Lucy.

“Curvature of the spine. And if you think that any of them brought sweetness and light into the College atmosphere, you are wrong. These lectures are supposed to keep us in touch with the world, but if I must be both frank and indiscreet”— she was obviously enjoying being both —“the frock you wore last night did us more good than all the lectures we have ever heard.”

Lucy had spent a really shocking sum on that garment when first her book became a best-seller, and it still remained her favourite; she had worn it to impress Henrietta. The gratified feeling came a little nearer.

But not near enough to destroy her common sense. She could still remember the beans. And the lack of bedside lamps. And the lack of any bells to summon service. And the everlasting bells that rang to summon others. No, on the 2.41 from Larborough she would be, though every student of the Leys Physical Training College lay down in her path and wept aloud. She murmured something about engagements — leaving it to be inferred that her diary bulged with pressing and desirable appointments — and suggested that Miss Nash might, meanwhile, direct her to the Staff bathrooms. “I didn’t want to go prowling through the corridors, and I couldn’t find a bell to ring.”

Miss Nash, having sympathised with her about the lack of service —“Eliza really should have remembered that there are no bells in the rooms here and come to call you; she’s the Staff house-maid”— suggested that, if Miss Pym didn’t mind using the students’ baths, they were much nearer. “They are cubicles, of course; I mean, they have walls only part of the way; and the floor is a sort of greenish concrete where the Staff have turquoise mosaic with a tasteful design in dolphins, but the water is the same.”

Miss Pym was delighted to use the students’ bathroom, and as she gathered her bathing things together the unoccupied half of her mind was busy with Miss Nash’s lack of any studentlike reverence for the Staff. It reminded her of something. And presently she remembered what it reminded her of. Mary Barharrow. The rest of Mary Barharrow’s form had been meek and admiring young labourers in the field of irregular French verbs, but Mary Barharrow, though diligent and amiable, had treated her French mistress as an equal; and that was because Mary Barharrow’s father was “nearly a millionaire.” Miss Pym concluded that in the “outside”— strange how one already used Klondyke terms about College — Miss Nash, who had so markedly Mary Barharrow’s charming air of social ease and equality, had also a father very like Mary Barharrow’s. She was to learn later that it was the first thing that anyone remarked on when Nash’s name was mentioned. “Pamela Nash’s people are very rich, you know. They have a butler.” They never failed to mention the butler. To the daughters of struggling doctors, lawyers, dentists, business men and farmers, he was as exotic as a negro slave.

“Shouldn’t you be at some class or other?” asked Miss Pym, as the quietness of the sunlit corridors proclaimed an absorption elsewhere. “I take it that if you are wakened at half-past five you work before breakfast.”

“Oh, yes. In the summer we have two periods before breakfast, one active and one passive. Tennis practice and kinesiology, or something like that.”

“What is kin — whatever-it-is?”

“Kinesiology?” Miss Nash considered for a moment the best way of imparting knowledge to the ignorant, and then spoke in imaginary quotation. “I take down a jug with a handle from a high shelf; describe the muscle-work involved.” And as Miss Pym’s nod showed that she had understood: “But in winter we get up like anyone else at half-past seven. As for this particular period, it is normally used for taking outside certificates — Public Health, and Red Cross, and what not. But since we have finished with these we are allowed to use it as a prep. hour for our final exams, which begin next week. We have very little prep. time so we are glad of it.”

“Aren’t you free after tea, or thereabouts?”

Miss Nash looked amused. “Oh, no. There is afternoon clinic from four o’clock till six; outside patients, you know. Everything from flat feet to broken thighs. And from half-past six to eight there is dancing. Ballet, not folk. We have folk in the morning; it ranks as exercise not art. And supper doesn’t finish much before half-past eight, so we are very sleepy before we begin our prep. and it is usually a fight between our sleepiness and our ignorance.”

As they turned into the long corridor leading to the stairs, they overtook a small scuttling figure clutching under one arm the head and thorax of a skeleton and the pelvis and legs under the other arm.

“What are you doing with George, Morris?” asked Miss Nash as they drew level.

“Oh, please don’t stop me, Beau,” panted the startled Junior, hitching her grotesque burden more firmly on to her right hip and continuing to scuttle in front of them, “and please forget that you saw me. I mean that you saw George. I meant to waken early and put him back in the lecture-room before the half-past five bell went, but I just slept.”

“Have you been up all night with George?”

“No, only till about two. I—”

“And how did you manage about lights?”

“I pinned my travelling rug over the window, of course,” said the Junior, in the testy tones of one explaining the obvious.

“A nice atmosphere on a June evening!”

“It was hellish,” said Miss Morris, simply. “But it really is the only way I can swot up my insertions, so please, Beau, just forget that you saw me. I’ll get him back before the Staff come down to breakfast.”

“You’ll never do it, you know. You’re bound to meet someone or other.”

“Oh, please don’t discourage me. I’m terrified enough now. And I really don’t know if I can remember how to hook up his middle.” She preceded them down the stairs, and disappeared into the front of the house.

“Positively Through-the-Looking–Glass,” commented Miss Pym, watching her go. “I always thought insertion was something to do with needlework.”

“Insertions? They’re the exact place on a bone where a muscle is attached to it. It’s much easier to do it with the skeleton in front of you, than with just a book. That is why Morris abducted George.” She expelled a breath of indulgent laughter. “Very enterprising of her. I stole odd bones from the drawers in the lecture-room when I was a Junior, but I never thought of taking George. It’s the dreadful cloud that hangs over a Junior’s life, you know. Final Anatomy. It really is a Final. You’re supposed to know all about the body before you begin practising on it, so Final Anatomy is a Junior exam, not a Senior one like the other finals. The bathrooms are along here. When I was a Junior the long grass at the edge of the cricket field was simply stiff on Sundays with hidden Juniors hugging their Gray. It is strictly forbidden to take books out of College, and on Sundays we are supposed to go all social and go out to tea, or to church, or to the country. But no Junior in the summer term ever did anything on a Sunday except find a quiet spot for herself and Gray. It was quite a business getting Gray out of College. Do you know Gray? About the size of those old family Bibles that rested on the parlour table. There was actually a rumour once that half the girls at Leys were pregnant, but it turned out that it was only the odd silhouette that everyone made with Gray stuffed up the front of their Sunday bests.”

Miss Nash stooped to the taps and sent a roar of water rushing into the bath. “When everyone in College bathes three or four times a day, in the matter of minutes, you have to have a Niagara of a tap,” she explained above the row. “I’m afraid you are going to be very late for breakfast.” And as Miss Pym looked dismayed and oddly small-girlish at the prospect: “Let me bring up something for you on a tray. No, it won’t be any trouble, I’d love to do it. There isn’t any need for a guest to appear at eight o’clock breakfast, anyhow. You’d much better have it in peace in your room.” She paused with her hand on the door. “And do change your mind about staying. It really would give us pleasure. More pleasure than you can imagine.”

She smiled and was gone.

Lucy lay in the warm soft water and thought happily of her breakfast. How pleasant not to have to make conversation among all those chattering voices. How imaginative and kind of that charming girl to carry a tray to her. Perhaps after all it would be nice to spend a day or two among these young —

She nearly leaped from her bath as a bell began its maniacal yelling not a dozen yards from where she lay. That settled it. She sat up and soaped herself. Not a minute later than the 2.41 from Larborough, not one minute later.

As the bell — presumably a five-minute warning before the gong at eight o’clock — died into silence, there was a wild rush in the corridor, the two doors to her left were flung open, and as the water cascaded into the baths a high familiar voice was heard shrieking: “Oh, darling, I’m going to be so late for breakfast, but I’m in a muck sweat, my dear. I know I should have sat down quietly and done the composition of plasma, of which I know ab-solutely noth-ing, my dear, and Final Phys. is on Tuesday. But it is such a lovely morning — Now what have I done with my soap?”

Lucy’s jaw slowly dropped as it was borne in upon her that in a community which began the day at half-past five and ended it at eight in the evening, there were still individuals who had the vitality to work themselves into a muck sweat when they need not.

“Oh, Donnie, darling, I’ve left my soap behind. Do throw me over yours!”

“You’ll have to wait till I’ve soaped myself,” said a placid voice that was in marked contrast to Dakers’ high emphasis.

“Well, my angel, do be quick. I’ve been late twice this week, and Miss Hodge looked distinctly odd the last time. I say, Donnie, you couldn’t by any chance take my ‘adipose’ patient at twelve o’clock clinic, could you?”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“She really isn’t so heavy as she looks, you know. You have only to —”

“I have a patient of my own.”

“Yes, but only the little boy with the ankle. Lucas could take him along with her ‘tortis colli’ girl —”


“No, I was afraid you wouldn’t. Oh, dear, I don’t know when I’m going to do that plasma. As for the coats of the stomach, they simply baffle me, my dear. I don’t really believe there are four, anyhow. It’s just a conspiracy. Miss Lux says look at tripe, but I don’t see that tripe proves anything.”

“Soap coming up.”

“Oh, thank you, darling. You’ve saved my life. What a nice smell, my dear. Very expensive.” In the momentary silence of soaping she became aware that the bath on her right was occupied.

“Who is next door, Donnie?”

“Don’t know. Gage, probably.”

“Is that you, Greengage?”

“No,” said Lucy, startled, “it’s Miss Pym.” And hoped it wasn’t as prim as it sounded.

“No, but really, who is it?”

“Miss Pym.”

“It’s a very good imitation, whoever you are.”

“It’s Littlejohn,” suggested the placid voice. “She does imitations.”

Miss Pym fell back on a defeated silence.

There was the hurr-oosh of a body lifted suddenly from the water, the spat of a wet foot placed firmly on the edge of the bath, eight wet finger-tips appeared on the edge of the partition, and a face peered over it. It was a long pale face, like an amiable pony’s, with the straight fair hair above it screwed up into a knob with a hasty hairpin. An oddly endearing face. Even in that crowded moment, Lucy understood suddenly how Dakers had managed to reach her final term at Leys without being knocked on the head by exasperated colleagues.

First horror, then a wild flush together with a dawning amusement, invaded the face above the partition. It disappeared abruptly. A despairing wail rose from beyond.

“Oh, Miss Pym! Oh, dear Miss Pym! I do apologise. I abase myself. It didn’t occur to me even to think it might be you —”

Lucy could not help feeling that she was enjoying her own enormity.

“I hope you’re not offended. Not terribly, I mean. We are so used to people’s skins that — that —”

Lucy understood that she was trying to say that the gaffe was less important in these surroundings than it would have been elsewhere, and since she herself had been decently soaping a big toe at the operative moment, she had no feelings on the subject. She said kindly that it was entirely her own fault for occupying a student’s bathroom, and that Miss Dakers was not to worry about it for a moment.

“You know my name?”

“Yes. You woke me in the dawn this morning yelling for a safety-pin.”

“Oh, catastrophe! Now I shall never be able to look you in the face!”

“I expect Miss Pym is taking the first train back to London,” said the voice in the further bath, in a now-look-what-you’ve-done tone.

“That is O’Donnell next door,” said Dakers. “She’s from Ireland.”

“Ulster,” said O’Donnell, without heat.

“How d’you do, Miss O’Donnell.”

“You must think this is a mad-house, Miss Pym. But don’t judge us by Dakers, please. Some of us are quite grown up. And some of us are even civilised. When you come to tea tomorrow you will see.”

Before Miss Pym could say that she was not coming to tea, a low murmur began to invade the cubicles, rising rapidly into the deep roar of a gong. Into the tumult Dakers’ banshee wail rose like the voice of a sea-gull in a storm. She was going to be so late. And she was so grateful for the soap, which had saved her life. And where was the girdle of her tunic? And if dear Miss Pym would promise to overlook her failings up to date, she would yet show her that she was a sensible female and a civilised adult. And they were all looking forward so much to that tea tomorrow.

With a rush and a bang the students fled, leaving Miss Pym alone with the dying pulse of the gong and the throaty protest of bath water running away.


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