Authors: Gladys Mitchell
WHEN LAST I DIED
Gladys Maude Winifred Mitchell – or 'The Great
Gladys' as Philip Larkin described her – was born
in 1901, in Cowley in Oxfordshire. She graduated
in history from University College London and in
1921 began her long career as a teacher. She
studied the works of Sigmund Freud and attributed
her interest in witchcraft to the influence of her
friend, the detective novelist Helen Simpson.
Her first novel,
, was published in
1929 and introduced readers to Beatrice Adela
Lestrange Bradley, the heroine of a further sixty-six
crime novels. She wrote at least one novel a year
throughout her career and was an early member of
the Detection Club along with G. K. Chesterton,
Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. In 1961 she
retired from teaching and, from her home in
Dorset, continued to write, receiving the Crime
Writers' Association Silver Dagger Award in 1976.
Gladys Mitchell died in 1983.
ALSO BY GLADYS MITCHELL
The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop
The Longer Bodies
The Saltmarsh Murders
Death at the Opera
The Devil at Saxon Wall
Dead Men's Morris
Come Away, Death
St Peter's Finger
Laurels Are Poison
The Worsted Viper
Sunset Over Soho
My Father Sleeps
The Rising of the Moon
Here Comes a Chopper
Death and the Maiden
The Dancing Druids
Tom Brown's Body
The Devil's Elbow
The Echoing Strangers
Twelve Horses and the
The Twenty-third Man
The Man Who Grew Tomatoes
Say It With Flowers
The Nodding Canaries
My Bones Will Keep
Adders on the Heath
Death of the Delft Blue
Pageant of Murder
The Croaking Raven
Three Quick and Five Dead
Dance to Your Daddy
Lament for Leto
A Hearse on May-Day
The Murder of Busy Lizzie
Winking at the Brim
A Javelin for Jonah
Convent on Styx
Late, Late in the Evening
Noonday and Night
Fault in the Structure
Wraiths and Changelings
Mingled with Venom
The Mudflats of the Dead
Nest of Vipers
The Whispering Knights
Lovers, Make Moan
The Death-Cap Dancers
The Death of a Burrowing Mole
Here Lies Gloria Mundy
Cold, Lone and Still
The Greenstone Griffins
The Crozier Pharaohs
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Published by Vintage 2009
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Copyright © the Executors of the Estate of Gladys Mitchell 1941
Gladys Mitchell has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs
and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
First published in Great Britain in 1941 by Michael Joseph
Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London SW1V 2SA
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A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library
But thou, whose pen hath like a pack-horse served, Whose stomach unto gall hath turned thy food, Whose senses, like poor prisoners, hunger-starved, Whose grief hath parched thy body, dried thy blood....
THE lunch had consisted of sausage-meat roll, diced swede and mashed potatoes; these covered with thick floury gravy and followed by tinned plums and custard. The boys had consumed the first course in three minutes, the second in one and a half, and still, to Mrs. Bradley's possibly prejudiced eye—for she had nephews, great-nephews and, now that Ferdinand was married, a grandson—they retained a wolfish aspect which depressed her. Her notions on diet, she informed the Warden, when he canvassed her opinion of the menu, were, she thought, about a century out of date.
The Warden wisely decided to treat this reply as a witticism, and as he was essentially a serious-minded man the subject of conversation languished. Grace, which had, to Mrs. Bradley's embarrassment, preceded the meal, now, with suitable grammatical adjustments, indicated its conclusion, and, with remarkable orderliness and very little noise, the boys filed out except for one child who re-seated himself and continued to eat.
"What on earth is he doing?" said the Warden. He raised his voice. "Dinnie!" The boy, with a regretful glance at his plate, stood up. "Why haven't you finished?"
"Why haven't you finished? Come up here." The boy approached with considerable reluctance. "And step up smartly when you're called. Don't you know we have a visitor?"
"Yes, sir." He shot a half-glance at Mrs. Bradley, contemptuously, she thought.
"Well, where are your manners? Now, then, answer my question."
"It would only have gone into the swill-tub for the pigs," said the boy, in an almost inaudible voice. He had dark red hair and brown eyes flecked with lighter specks so that it seemed as though the sun danced on a trout stream. His brows slanted in an alarmingly Mephistophelean manner, and he had a wide mouth set in a grim jaw. The Americans, with their flair for good-humoured expressiveness, would have dubbed him a tough citizen, thought Mrs. Bradley, for whom bad boys had academic and occasionally—for she was a woman—sentimental interest.
They were all bad boys at the Institution. The Government, with one of those grandmotherly inspirations which are the dread and bane of progressive educationists, had decreed, some ten years previously, that its theories with regard to the preventive detention of delinquent children were a long way out of date, and were to be re-stated in accordance with the facts so far gleaned by child-guidance clinics.
Mrs. Bradley, among other psychologists, had been called into consultation, but her simple suggestion was that delinquent children, who, like delinquent adults, can be divided into those brands which can be snatched from the burning and those which, unfortunately, cannot, should (literally) be killed or cured. The former treatment was to be painless, the latter drastic. This view was received without enthusiasm by the authorities and was treated, even by the Press, with reserve.
Now, ten years later, she had been called in again; not (be it stated hastily to those who retain the uncivilized view that human life is necessarily sacred) to assist in translating her theory into fact, but because, strangely enough, the Government had discovered that the new methods in preventive detention had again sprung a leak and badly needed plugging.
Why they should have called into consultation one with whose thought upon the subject they would be bound to disagree, not even Mrs. Bradley herself could say, well-versed though she was in morbid psychology, but she had answered the summons as a good democrat should, promptly and with an open mind.
The trouble was, the Warden had explained, that in spite of humane treatment, fewer punishments, better food, and the provision of playing fields, bad boys, on the whole, continued to be bad, and even attempted, more frequently than could be justified, to escape from Elysium—in other words, the Institution —into the wicked and troubled world.
The worst of it was, he continued, voicing his own point of view with a certain naïveté which she found entertaining, that the two boys who had run away a week before Mrs. Bradley's arrival, had not, so far, been traced, and were, as he expressed it, still at large.
It could not be helped, Mrs. Bradley suggested; for she found that she was sorry for the Warden in his obvious anxiety, although she knew that he did not like her.
No, it could not be helped, the Warden agreed, but it was particularly unfortunate as, some years previously, just before he had been appointed, two boys had contrived a similar disappearance and had never been found.
"What? Never?" said Mrs. Bradley, startled; for the police, she reflected, are noted, among other things, for their bloodhound abilities. "Do you mean to say ...?"
"I mean to say," said the Warden, looking, all in a moment, haggard with worry, "that, from then until now, there has been not another sign of either of them. I received my appointment partly on an undertaking that such a thing should never happen again, and I've been careful, very careful indeed, but, if we don't get these two soon, I shall feel that I ought to ask the authorities to accept my resignation. You see, the kind of boy who is sent here—just excuse me one moment...."
He checked further revelations and confessions in order to attend to the matter of immediate moment.
"What do you mean, Dinnie?"
"You know what I mean," replied the boy.
"Don't be impudent! Answer me directly!"
"But you do know what he means," murmured Mrs. Bradley. In spite of her pity for the Warden in his distress, she found that, on the whole, humane though she believed him to be, and a great improvement on his predecessor, whom she remembered very well from her previous visit, she could not approve of all his methods, and this one, of attempting to make a boy look a fool when he was not a fool, she deplored almost more than any other. She had been an interested but disapproving witness of it several times during her stay.
The Warden, feeling, no doubt, that it was due to his estimate of himself and his position to ignore it, took no notice of the interruption, but addressed himself again to the truculent and obstinate-looking Dinnie.
"Now, boy! Answer me directly. Tell me at once what you mean!"
"There was an extra dinner, and I ate it," said the boy.
"Right. Go and finish it. To-morrow do without your pudding. If you had answered me at first when I asked you, I should not have punished you at all."
He rose briskly. The rest of the staff had left the high table and had gone out with the boys, so that, except for Dinnie, now busily and hastily gulping down the pig-food, the hall was empty but for himself and Mrs. Bradley.
"Have to be sharp on them," he said, feeling, for some reason, that some justification was needed for the combination of bullying and weakness he had shown. "No good letting him get away with that."
"How did there come to be an extra dinner?" Mrs. Bradley tactfully inquired.
"That still remains to be investigated." He investigated it by sending for the housekeeper the moment he reached his sitting-room.
"It was Canvey. He felt sick and did not go in to dinner. But as we had had no notification, his dinner was sent in as usual," said the housekeeper, looking, Mrs. Bradley thought, in the presence of the Warden like a drab female thrush confronting an imposing frog.
"I had better see Canvey." The Frog touched the buzzer which had already brought a boy to act as messenger. "Get Canvey, Williams, please. All right, Margaret, thank you.... We use Christian names with one another here. It helps the atmosphere," he remarked to Mrs. Bradley when the boy and the housekeeper had gone.
Ganvey was a rat-faced boy with handsome, wide-open eyes, affording a strange impression of cunning and frankness mingled. Call the cunning lack of self-confidence, and the frankness an attempt, probably an unconscious one, to compensate for this, and you had a different portrait of the boy and not necessarily a less faithful one, Mrs. Bradley surmised.
"What's the matter with you that you couldn't eat your dinner?" the Warden inquired. He prided himself, Mrs. Bradley had discovered, upon taking a personal interest in each boy. That this might prove embarrassing and even disagreeable to the boy, obviously never entered his head.
"Sir, I don't like sausage-meat, sir. It makes me sick, sir," responded Canvey, bestowing on the interlocutor his wide gaze.
"Nonsense, boy. Did you eat your pudding yesterday?"
"Sir, yes, sir."
"No, you did not!" thundered the Warden. "You did
eat your vegetables."
The boy remained silent, but he did not drop his eyes, and he and the Warden stared at one another, until the Warden, apparently the weaker character, added :
"I felt ill, sir."
"No, no. You didn't feel ill. You've been smoking. Have you been stealing tobacco from the staff?"
"Sir, no, sir."
The Warden produced a cane. The boy eyed it with a certain degree of sullen speculation.
"Well?" said the Warden.
"I didn't steal anything. It was rhubarb leaves," said the boy.
"Then you deserve to feel sick. See that you eat your tea." He put the cane away, and the boy departed.
"Rhubarb leaves," said Mrs. Bradley thoughtfully.
"Yes. A good many of these boys are inveterate smokers when they come here, and we have to cure them. I have given up smoking, myself. I don't want boys coming into this room and smelling tobacco. I don't feel that that would be playing the game. But I can scarcely help it if the staff have an occasional pipe or cigarette. One can scarcely expect them to adopt all one's own standards."
"One could engage non-smokers, I suppose," said Mrs. Bradley, interested in a system which regarded the powers of self-denial of the staff as being inferior to those of the boys. The Warden, again scenting a witticism, made no direct reply. He said :
"It is very difficult to get these boys to see that certain things aren't good for them, and, of course, if they come here with the craving, they'll satisfy it somehow if they can. It is one of our many difficulties, to eradicate these tendencies."
Mrs. Bradley thought it might be not only difficult but impossible to eradicate the tobacco habit, judging by men, young and old, of her acquaintance, and some women, too, who were addicted to it.
"I suppose voluntary abstinence, for some reason which they can appreciate, would be the only means of overcoming it," she observed. "Athletes, for instance, voluntarily give up tobacco, among other things, I believe."
"It wouldn't work here. These boys have no
esprit de corps,
" responded the Warden, looking disfavourably upon her.
"In that case it might be as well to let them smoke, if they can find anything to smoke, or even to offer a packet of cigarettes as a good-conduct prize," she suggested.
The Warden disregarded these flippancies, and asked, rather abruptly, whether she would like to see another group at work.
"No. I should prefer to take over a group myself, for a week," she said. The Warden, looking rather like a snake-charmer who has been asked by one of the spectators for leave to take over the management of his pets, replied vaguely and dubiously, whereat she cackled and did not renew the request. "Why is that boy Dinnie here?" she asked.
"He was employed by a receiver of stolen bicycles," replied the Warden. "He used to ride away on those left at the roadside. Ladies' bicycles were his speciality. He wasn't caught until he went outside his class and tried to ride off on a motor cycle."
"Nasty little nark," said the Warden pardonably. "He used to push away babies left in perambulators, and then 'find them abandoned' and claim the reward, if there was one."
"And if there was not?"
"Then he and the woman he worked with used to wait a week and then abandon the babies themselves. One mother committed suicide, and another was injured for life by her husband because of that boy."
"And the woman he worked with," Mrs. Bradley gently remarked.
Her own methods with the boys were characteristic. She thought they needed stimulating, and applied psychological treatment, to their astonishment and her own amusement. She discovered very soon that they were afraid of her. One even went so far as to ask whether she was there to pick out the "mentals."
"We are all 'mentals,' my poor child," she remarked.
Nevertheless, at the end of two days she could tell the Warden where to lay hands upon his missing boys, for it was common knowledge where and how they had gone, and this common knowledge she soon shared.
"Word-associations," she replied, when, the lambs having been caused to return to their apparently unpopular fold, the Warden asked her to tell him how she had done it.
"My predecessor could have done with the same sort of help," he volunteered abruptly. "You knew, perhaps, that the loss of those two runaways cost him his job? He was not exactly asked to resign, but—well, it was clearly indicated that there was no future for him here."
"Why? Surely he was not dismissed because two boys contrived to get away?"
The Warden shrugged. "He had a private income, I believe. But there was a public inquiry, and one or two things came out. It seemed fairly certain, for one thing, that the escape had been assisted, if not actually engineered, by a member of the staff. That was what went so seriously against him. Of course, he wasn't popular, but still——"
"Extraordinary," said Mrs. Bradley, hoping to hear more.
"Couldn't trace it to anyone, though," the Warden gloomily continued. "But somebody seemed to have supplied them with files, for example."
"Don't they use files in the manual centre?"
"Yes, of course they do. But those are always checked at the end of one period and at the beginning of the next. They are always in order. No, these files came in from outside. Different make, and so on. It all came out."