NB Spoilers for the murdered and murderer in Miss Pym Disposes
Miss Vane Disposes
The Arlinghurst business had gone badly. The invitation to send a student to teach at the leading girls’ school in England ought to have been a feather in Leys’ already decorated cap. But with Miss Hodge’s appointment of Miss Rouse, the feather had been decidedly ruffled. Harriet thought rather better of Miss Rouse’s character than some of the staff appeared to. It was no small thing to work to overcome not only an intellectual weakness, but a social one, and the latter without the aid of beauty. Judge not according to the appearance, though Harriet, and wondered whether the reserved Mary Innes would have done so well with her fellow-students without her beautiful face and the favour of a girl like Beau Nash. Still, there was little denying that the intellectually brilliant Innes was more deserving of this plum post. Innes’ aloof manner would work better in a place like Arlinghurst than Rouse’s attempted friendliness, much better than Innes would manage in a grammar school or orthopaedic hospital. Miss Hodge had made a mistake there, though she was hardly responsible for its public nature; the secretary had been roundly scolded for her indiscretion in letting notice of the position escape before the choice had been announced. Still, Innes’ ought not to have counted her chickens, and Nash ought not to have rounded them up for her. It was always a mistake for students to think they knew who was ‘best’. The measures by which they judged were so seldom those of the staff. Harriet remembered the outrage in her second year at Shrewsbury when the Senior Student had got a Third. A Third that was entirely unsurprising to the Fellows, given her resolute refusal to understand that the kind of scrabbling that could see one well into the Second class at Prelims did not suffice for Honours. Harriet’s own First had scarcely been anticipated by her contemporaries.
Miss Rouse was not at breakfast, a strange absence. No student at Leys missed a meal if she could possibly help it, and surely Rouse ought to have come to glory in the triumph of her appointment to Arlinghurst. Yet she had not been seen that morning. Miss Hodge had gone to the gymnasium, accompanied by Fröken – a foolish abbreviation, the Senior Gymnast’s surname being the perfectly pronounceable Gustavsen – but the English were so often foolish about foreign languages, and these girls had by and large been in the science streams. Harriet fingered the little rosette in her pocket as she crossed into the old house heading for the staff room to assemble for prayers as if she were at school again or – prison. The rosette from a pair of pumps worn to parties long ago. Not, she felt, a pair of shoes owned by Rouse, who had the appearance of a woman who had come into her growth late. But the staff room was empty apart from Miss Lux, who explained that Rouse had been found in the gymnasium with a fractured skull, and been taken off by ambulance to the infirmary in West Larborough.
It was the pin in the high boom that had done it. Rouse had leapt up to seize the heavy beam above her head, and the loose pin had failed, bringing it crashing down upon her so that now she lay in the hospital in West Larborough and the aunt and uncle who did not care enough to come to see her at the Demonstration Day had been summoned to her bedside. It seemed that O’Donnell had helped Rouse to put up the boom. Summoned, she explained that she had been responsible for the pin at the wall end of the device, where she could climb up the wall bars to help her. As O’Donnell was a good six inches shorter than Rouse, this was convincing enough.
‘Then it must have been Rouse’s own carelessness,’ said Miss Lux. ‘There is no other explanation. And let us be thankful for it. It is bad enough as it is, but it would be far worse if someone else had been careless and had to bear the knowledge that she was responsible for – ’
Bell and telephone shrilled together. Miss Hodge hurried to the latter as Miss Lux prepared to lead the remnant of the staff to Prayers. Harriet excused herself abruptly, and hurried to the gym. Miss Lux had said that Wragg was setting the gym to rights for the Demonstration. One might be too late, and there might be no reason to worry at all, and yet...
Inside the gymnasium, the caretaker, Giddy, and one of the maids were hauling on the rope.
‘Miss Wragg!’ The Junior Gymnast turned round. Giddy and the woman, bereft of instruction, lowered the rope again.
‘Does Miss Hodge want me?’
‘No. She’s talking to Miss Rouse’s people. I didn’t have time to tell her – I think that the gymnasium ought to be left. The police may want to see it.’
‘Yes. It was a serious accident. If the worst happens and there needs to be an – an inquest, it will be better if the police had been able to inspect it properly.’
Miss Wragg was not an intelligent woman, but she had read several Harriet Vane thrillers and a great number of Agatha Christie’s. The implications of such words in the mouth of an author of detective fiction were not lost on her.
‘I see. What should we do.’
‘I think the gymnasium should be locked for now. Is there only the one key?’
‘Yes. That is, Giddy has this one, but there’s another in the safe in Miss Parsons’ office.’ Miss Parsons was the secretary.
‘Thank you. I must see Miss Hodge. Will you leave this key with Miss Parsons as well? It might be better if it were kept in the safe.’
Miss Hodge looked thinner and older and greyer than she had at breakfast, which was already thinner and older and greyer than she had looked several days ago, before the Arlinghurst affair. She heard Harriet out in silence.
‘Let me be plain, Miss Vane. Are you saying that somebody at Leys has conspired to do harm to Miss Rouse? And that we should report it to the police? Have you any idea the damage a public accusation like that could do to the College? At the very least, we will have to cancel the demonstration, if we cannot use the gym. With Miss Rouse’s accident, it will be necessary to rearrange the routine and the students must have time to practice.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Harriet. ‘I don’t say that somebody has conspired to harm Miss Rouse, only that it is too soon to say that it is definitely either an accident or an accident certainly caused by Miss Rouse herself.’
‘But surely no-one else can have been there at that time in the morning?’
Harriet shrugged. ‘Miss Rouse was there when she needn’t have been. Fröken said that her knack for the apparatus had come back, but she kept practicing. Perhaps another student was nervous in advance of the demonstration. Lots of them must have been awake; one doesn’t lose the two years’ habit of a half-five bell overnight, though I suppose we might rule out Miss Thomas. Besides – ’ she hesitated, wondering whether after all she ought not to tell Miss Hodge but speak to the police directly. After all, it could not be denied that the Principal herself had both a motive and a key to the safe in the secretary’s office.
‘Besides?’ asked Miss Hodge. No, it was better to be clear about things now, and let the bodies fall where they would.
‘There was somebody else in the gymnasium this morning, before Miss Rouse. I was awake early and wandered along that way myself. There were footprints on the concrete path, but Miss Rouse was not there. And I found this on the floor in the gym itself.’
Harriet displayed the little silver rosette, but did not invite the Principal to take it.
‘I assumed at the time that Miss Rouse had come and gone, but unless she forgot something and went back to her room for it, and then returned to the gymnasium, there must have been another person there.’
Miss Hodge dropped her head to her hands, a middle-aged woman, already tired and upset after this injury to a girl who had been a favourite, and now wounded anew, but when she raised her head again her face was resolute. She struck the bell to summon the secretary.
‘Miss Parsons, please telephone to the Larborough police and ask for the – ’
‘Superintendent,’ supplied Harriet.
‘The Superintendent. I must speak to him immediately.’
‘Very good, Miss Hodge.’
The Superintendent of the Larborough police appeared to be a competent man with a pleasant manner who managed to conceal any suspicion he felt about his latest case being handed to him by a writer of detective fiction. He arrived promptly with several of his men, who set about inspecting the gymnasium as the College was at lunch. As the students tucked into a cocoanut pudding that Harriet was amazed any amount of physical exertion could render appetising, Miss Hodge rose to her feet. She was brisk and to the point.
‘Students. You are all aware of the unfortunate accident that has occurred this morning. Initially we believed that it came about through the carelessness of the student concerned. The police have since inspected the gymnasium, and have uncovered evidence that it is possible – I say only possible, by no means certain – that the incident may not have been entirely accidental.’
Harriet saw the shock flow over the students’ faces as this sank in.
‘In view of this, and to obtain further evidence, the police are now searching the rooms of the College, both public and private. None are exempt from this; the accommodations of the staff have already been searched. We have guests this afternoon. Although the gymnastic demonstration must necessarily be cancelled, the dancing will go ahead outdoors. You will be escorted from the building into the formal gardens, where you will find your guests. Students or guests wishing to use the lavatories may present themselves at the front door of the old house, which you will be permitted to enter for this purpose.’
Miss Hodge concluded this devastating speech with an admonition against gossip, and led the staff from the hall. Harriet observed that she had not included the traditional response of the Headmistress to wrongdoing, of inviting the guilty party to come forward and identify herself.
In any case, the message came soon enough that there was no need: the police had searched the students’ bedrooms and found only one pair of leather pumps, a black pair with a little silver rosette missing from the left shoe.
They belonged to Beau Nash.
Beau Nash! Who would have suspected the Senior Student, handsome, clever and rich Pamela Nash with her fine mind and her bright eyes, the David to Mary Innes’ Jonathan. The least likely suspect.
‘Beau Nash!’ said Miss Hodge to Superintendent Michaels. ‘What motive could she possibly have?’
‘For her friend to have the post at Arlinghurst,’ said Harriet. ‘Miss Nash is not used to disappointment.’
‘Yes,’ said Miss Lux. ‘Yes, I see.’
The Superintendent sat solidly between them.
‘There is one other point to consider,’ added Harriet. ‘The students sit in the same places at each meal, isn’t that the case?’
‘Yes,’ said Miss Hodge. ‘They change each term. It saves time in having to decide each mealtime whom they particularly want to talk to.’
‘Thank you. Miss Rouse sits at Miss Stewart’s table. At breakfast this morning when you summoned Miss Nash to the staff table, Miss Wragg didn’t tell her why, did she?’
‘And she came straight to you, and you asked her whether it was Miss Rouse who was missing from Miss Stewart’s table, and Nash said Yes.’
‘That is correct.’
‘As Senior Student Miss Nash routinely takes care to be in good time for all meals. She was early for breakfast this morning, and she went straight to her place a good two minutes before the hall was full. Miss Stewart’s table is not visible from Miss Nash’s place. Yet when you asked her if it were Rouse that was missing she answered at once that it was.’
‘She might have heard other students talking about it,’ protested Miss Lux.
‘She might. But Miss Nash is Senior Student. If she heard that Miss Rouse was missing then why didn’t she, as a responsible holder of that office and young woman of no little brain, alert the staff? She knew Miss Rouse had been expected to practice the beam alone that morning.’
‘You are an acute observer, Miss Vane,’ said the Superintendent.
‘I admit I find the students’ lives fascinating. They are so passionate about their chosen profession.’
‘So I am told,’ he said.
An uncomfortable silence fell.
‘When will Miss Nash be interviewed?’ asked the Principal.
‘My men are checking for fingerprints now. They have taken them off the shoe, and the boom and pin, and from various places in her room and Miss Rouse’s room, and from Miss Rouse’s tennis racket. I am told that tennis rackets are never borrowed,’ he explained to Harriet. ‘We are also taking prints for Miss Innes.’
‘You surely don’t think,’ began Miss Lux.
‘It would be as well to rule her out,’ said Harriet. ‘I can’t give her an alibi. Her room’s next to mine, but I woke before that blasted bell for once and went outside so I don’t know whether she was there to get up or not.’
‘Poor Mary Innes!’ said Miss Hodge. ‘Beau Nash has been such a good friend to her, and now to discover this other side to her character...’
‘Has Nash really been good for her?’ asked Harriet. ‘Her father doesn’t seem to think so.’
Superintendent Michaels spluttered.
‘I don’t mean like that. I mean that Nash’s protectiveness, the way that she has sought to look after Mary, hasn’t really helped her to be happy living with other people, and to get along with them in a way that she will need in her career. Austere aloofness isn’t so attractive when one doesn’t have a more obviously glamorous friend to lend that extra cachet, and by and large headmistresses expect their games mistresses to keep their air of distant scrutiny to the doings of the pupils.’
‘You’re very stern, Miss Vane,’ said Miss Lux.
‘Fortune’s favourites are apt to bring out the worst in me, I’m afraid. And I don’t put much credence in a pretty face.’
‘I shouldn’t call either Innes or Nash fortune’s favourite now,’ said Michaels, and Harriet had to agree.
By tea-time, Beau Nash had confessed. Self-possessed she might have been, expecting life to bow down before her, but the will that was sufficient to secure her desires against indulgent parents and besotted teachers was no remedy against a determined Superintendent of Police armed with a pair of shoes, several sets of fingerprints, and a fellow-student blithely reporting ‘Oh yes, I saw Beau from the window.’
Miss Rouse was dead. Mary Innes had refused Arlinghurst.
‘I couldn’t,’ she said, in front of the Principal and her parents. ‘I should always know how I came by it.’
This could hardly be denied, and though it seemed rather unfair that Miss Innes should be deprived of such a promising start to her career through the misfortune of being befriended by a murderer, it was perhaps for the best that she return to her parents for a while. Miss Lux, who had had some conversation with Mr Innes while the Headmistress dealt with the girl and her mother, hoped that she might be persuaded to consider a medical career.
‘I quite understand that she has no desire to be a GP in her father’s practice, it wouldn’t suit her at all. But she might be an excellent surgeon in an unfashionable discipline. I have asked a friend of mine to write to her with an invitation to observe his work in the Bristol Royal Infirmary.’
‘That seems a very good idea.’
‘By the way, Miss Vane, I very much hope that you will accept the Principal’s invitation to give another lecture next year. It was very good for the girls to hear a real representative of the outside world.’
‘Beau Nash said that, too.’
Lux shrugged. ‘What if she did? One can’t reject everything a murderer says, or what should we do for drink? Between ourselves, I think Miss Hodge hopes that if you agree to return, you will feel more hesitation in putting our affairs into a novel. Personally I hope that you will both return and turn us into a book if you feel like it.’
‘I don’t think Miss Hodge need be afraid. I don’t like to base my books on real events. I don’t say that I’ve never taken an inventive murder method, though most murderers are really quite dull about it, but I don’t like to take the people. They didn’t ask for it, and I don’t see why they should be hurt more for my benefit.’ She smiled. ‘Perhaps you think that sounds rather sententious.’
‘A little,’ said Miss Lux. ‘You feel for the people afterwards, but you didn’t hesitate to hurt them in the event.’
‘I didn’t know who they were then,’ protested Harriet. ‘Of course, lots of murderers probably say that, too. But don’t you see, justice must always hurt someone, unless all murderers are orphans. One can’t prevent it, because murder hurts, too. Are we to say that because Miss Rouse was an orphan and Beau Nash isn’t, that is all right to murder Miss Rouse but dreadful to hang Miss Nash? Miss Rouse’s guardians don’t seem to have been awfully bothered about her, but they’re sorry she’s dead. Oughtn’t that to outweigh Mrs Nash’s embarrassment at the bridge club?’
‘You are right,’ said Miss Lux, ‘and I apologise. I have never been connected to a murder before. I believe that it has upset me more than I knew.’
‘Nor have I,’ confessed Harriet. ‘I’m afraid I’ve viewed it in an all too abstract light.’
There was little left for Harriet to do but catch her train, and having bid farewell to the staff (regretfully), Desterro (entertainingly) and Mr and Mrs Innes (soberly), she did so. She might well, she thought, return to Leys next year after all. Under the circumstances, one could scarcely set a murder there, but there were other types of mystery. Tomorrow, the students would head home, the juniors for well-earned rest and refreshment to face the next year, the seniors for good – or ill. Beau Nash to remand and the Assizes. Mary Innes to exile in spirit. Miss Rouse to her north country home and thence a far longer journey. Where she might be joined, come to think of it, by Miss Nash.
Harriet sank her head into the cushions of First Class, a treat justified by the savings on food represented by a stay at Leys. She thought that she had never previously given sufficient consideration to what happened after the end of her books. Now the formula seemed all too easy: Robert Templeton pronounced, a Police Inspector laid his heavy hand upon a shoulder, and the end pages gave their blank assurance of completion. Real life wasn’t like that at all. Real life continued, not with a paragraph to resolve the happiness of the young lovers - it was so trying, the way that publishers always wanted young lovers - but with all its complications. The Principal, dreading the papers. Mr Nash with that appalled green face, worst of all because it was a face that believed. Mary Innes... Why had one never previously considered her perspective: the person for whom it was done, for whom it was the last thing in the world she would have wanted. A book in which the solution of the murder was the beginning, not the end, that would be original. Even Philip Boyes might like that, though Phil was awfully down on detective fiction as a rule, which was a pity for someone so clever. The black flag, fluttering silently in the sight of the two watchers, and Robert Templeton knowing that a terrible wrong had been done. Yes, that might well work. It would be difficult, of course, and the publisher might not like it. Publishers were like that, they didn’t know a good thing when they saw it, but her agent would persuade them. Perhaps not the next book, not until one was thoroughly established; then it wouldn’t be an oddity, but a triumph of originality, ‘Miss Vane’s latest book, sure to be a bestseller, takes the mystery novel to new heights...’ She laughed. One might write a series of books from different points of view: the innocent bystander; the murderer himself; the victim dying of an exotic poison, still alive yet irrevocably doomed, investigating her own end. The doomed innocent hunting the murderer from the condemned cell. Perhaps that would be too gruesome and, unless he were able to convince the Home Secretary, too far outside the expectations of detective fiction. The public liked its good plain food, and Harriet Vane was proving rather adept at serving it, which was cheerful or dispiriting as one chose to look at it. Though surely nothing could be as dispiriting as nobody wanting to read what one wrote, and having to go back to being a secretary. Highmindedness was much easier if one had money to go with it.
Then one had better make some. There were still two hours left of the journey and Harriet had two and a half short-stories written in the time at Leys, almost entirely usable, although that bit with a gymnastics competition would have to go. Then one might invite Philip Boyes to dinner and show him the benefits of sales. Harriet was not quite sure what to do about Philip Boyes, who seemed as if he might be rather keen and was very attractive and exceedingly clever, though perhaps not altogether reliable. But dinner was hardly marriage and why shouldn’t one? If Harriet had wanted to abjure the company of men she might have – well, taught at a women’s college or something; only that could never have worked because everywhere must be inferior to Shrewsbury, and one couldn’t bear that. She unscrewed her pen lid and began to write. The train drew towards London, buttercup-covered fields flashed by unheeded outside the window, and murder receded safely into art.
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