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Mrs. Dwyer McMahan

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Sketch on page 90 of 'Mrs. Dwyer McMahan'

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THE first time I saw her I was, to be quite frank, not supposed to see, or even to hear her. I was a small child, and was to bed early in compliance with the old saw. It was a wild, wet night, I imagine in the coldest time of the year—and it can be cold in those Gippsland valleys when the furies descend from the ranges! On my drowsy ear, snuggled warm in the bedclothes, fell the robust tones of Mrs. Dwyer McMahan. “Are you in there, anyone at all?” From the gleaming square of the window the light of the kerosene lamp in the old dining-room must have suggested that someone was in. Besides, on such a night, at nine o'clock, there always was someone in; there was nothing to be out at night for at any time in those days with us—no theatrical lure, or other call, to make us leave the big log-fire. Once the day's work was done, and the tired father was able to spread his weekly paper before the glowing fire, the tired mother could get out her work-basket and the host of too well ventilated socks and stockings, what was there to call them abroad? Small fry abed, there's no hour like it in country life for the elders; for while a woman darns she may listen to news of the big world beyond the gum-trees.

So Mrs. Dwyer McMahan's query was no doubt intended to be merely formal, designed to make the door a more emphatic glimmering square than the window. My sleepy ear was quickly agog; a howl of wind gave the voice a crescendo ending; it may, indeed, have drowned some further words, though I do not think so, for, as we knew later, Mrs. Dwyer McMahan was a woman who spoke to the point. It was as unusual in those days, especially in stern weather, for callers to come after nightfall as for any of us to be abroad. My

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mother made a startled exclamation, quick on the flourish of the wind, so that I caught only the tone, not the words. My father's chair groaned a little in protest against his quick movement; his paper rattled on the table.

“Upon my word,” he said, “it's Mrs. Dwyer McMahan, or I'm dreaming.”

Quickly the door was wide, and a stream of light flashed out through the verandah of the big posts, gleaming on some object more solid than the darkness around.

“Take this kid, Stephenson; we're dr-renched.”

“What on earth?”—but action checked speech. My father had a wet bundle in his arms, from which proceeded an expostulatory cry. The bundle, still protesting with its elemental might, was quickly in my mother's arms, and she inside the door again with a lamp glass smoked and cracked. She had a dim outline of the bigger bundle descending like a black avalanche on my father, less like a woman than a solid shape of night.

Mrs. Dwyer McMahan was characteristic, even with chattering teeth. “I'll go in, you give the mare a feed, Stephenson.”

Then Claribel and I, on elbows, heard a soft squelching of horse's hoofs, and the snorting sigh of the beast that feels its day's work is over and its reward at hand. The horse was led away to shelter.

“I'll dr-rench the place if I come in as I am,” the Amazon voice from the door proclaimed. “I'll dr-rop the shawls and my skirt here,” and in a moment Mrs. Dwyer McMahan was out of her over-wrappings.

My mother protested. “Never mind, never mind; come to the fire, you must be frozen, such a night as it is!”

“I'm chilled a bit; but the kid, is he dr-ry?” The burry voice was capable of tones of solicitude, for, as we knew later, the big heart under the homespun bodice was tender as a child's. Babe and horse—or the mare, as she always said, before herself!

The child was warm, even steamy, under the wet things, and its mother had it in a moment, while our mother ran

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to the big box for garments for it. When she got back to the fire its mother had it against the homespun bodice, and its sorrows were forgotten in a quickly-coming sleepy satisfaction. The little toes were peeping at the fire; and it was a sensuously contented little atom, no longer questioning. My mother had, I think, done three or four things at once— the kettle, already partly hot, was swinging on the crook, and she was pulling off the guest's boots and stockings, which were wet, though she had been mounted. Two feet as fine and big as ever grew in Ireland, were toasting on the hob in a trice, till my father's slippers encompassed them, and they had, perforce, presently to withdraw themselves a trifle from the furnace of the coals. We always had huge back logs of yellow box; dry, and perhaps a bit pipy, so that as our short evenings wore on, jets of smoke that escaped at the ends gave place to jets of flame escaping from within. Then, as from my stool on the hearthrug I had often observed, the log was conquered along its whole length.

On this night the burning of the back log had proceeded well, and the fire was accordingly a fine spectacle, as well as an institution of comfort. The next thing was Mrs. Dwyer McMahan's hat. I think my mother felt some reluctance about divesting her of that—whether from shyness I cannot say; but, instead of laying hands upon it, as she had done with the stout boots, my mother only suggestively remarked its wetness. Mrs. Dwyer McMahan instantly spared a hand from her operations with the infant to remove the hat. She gave it a shake over the fire with a gesture like cracking a whip, so that the shower of water that leapt from it sizzled on the coals, and the almost somnolent infant gave a jump. It was a wonderful hat. How well I came to know it later, for though this was its owner's first appearance in our home it was by no means her last. And so long as she came, if my powers of observation were not at fault, that same hat adorned her head. We identified her afar by it; no less than by the mare, “Poll.” It was a structure, rather than a hat—tall, ample, independent, like its owner.

But supper first. The babe was laid temporarily on the

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sofa; his supper done. What a smell of bacon and a sizzling of frying eggs came to us, aching on our elbows! And did ever a woman eat more?

They talked a long time, those three; I know we were awfully sleepy, and yet, of course, we were bound to listen. The smell of the bacon wafting in to us through the cracks of the wall made us hungry too, I think. I've said we were bound to listen; but we did more than that: we peeped too, else how did we know so well all that happened? The ear has its limitations. There was, in fact, a hole in the bark wall, small, as though bored by an auger, and almost in a line with our faces as we lay in bed, which made it possible for us in turn—strictly in turn, mind you—to see into the dining-room. This was not the first time we had spied through it when visitors were there, and we in bed. We were able to see how well Mrs. Dwyer McMahan's face and form matched her voice, a huge head and face, looking strong, and square, and capable— and more too, that we could not define, which turned now and then, almost fronting us, caused us to withdraw the eye guiltily from the peephole. We liked her, somehow; in our child's short-cut way to things, we knew her a diamond, though rough. And so she proved to be; though in her intercourse with people she was lacking in manners and in courtliness generally. She had not cultivated the social arts —despised them, I fancy. She was even rude, perhaps; but when people understood that it was only “Mrs. Dwyer McMahan's way,” no one thought of being offended. Later, when she came to our house, she would order us children about in a brusque way, telling my mother she was too easy with us. Yet we liked her; and whenever the white plume showed itself over the hilltop we would run in gleefully to announce a welcome guest's arrival.

She sat, that first night, with her broad lap spread; she had declined a skirt of mother's as being hopeless about the waist; so there she sat, in her red-and-black striped petticoat, as a matter of course, conversing with my father and mother. Indeed, one found later that, skirt or no skirt, that black-and-red petticoat was always very evident. When,

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dismounted in her riding habit, she held the skirt high, the petticoat showed a bright colour note. In the press of early morning work at home it was said she appeared invariably in this garb, moving about indoors and out, superintending things. Never a jest was raised amongst the men. Mrs. Dwyer McMahan was really respected.

Mr. Dwyer McMahan was a poor, sick man, compelled to sit about the house. It was said he coughed all the time. Their house was a queer old shanty of a place, away in the Gippsland ranges. Everyone knew it, and stayed there the first night of the through trip. Travellers flung their saddles off and turned their weary horses out, and that's all there was about it. It was Liberty Hall, that house by the roadside; there was always something to eat and a bed. Perhaps that was why Mrs. McMahan regarded as a place to be stayed at as a matter of course, any house she happened upon in her travels, if occasion suggested a halt. And travel she did; for even in the wilds something there must be coming in to keep the cupboard replenished, and to her it fell to win that something, as well as to disburse it. The place itself was poor; the ramshackle old house of the Dwyer McMahans was in a dip among the stony quartz-bearing ranges that lay all around it. The garden refused to flourish on a diet of gravel and pipeclay; it was a house site, that spot, not a garden site, and the soil refused to be wooed by vegetation, standing firm to its auriferous principles.

And so the masculine possibilities of the woman were brought out by the circumstances of her life. She saw a possible living for her sick man and her young family; but it needed head and hands, and some courage and endurance, to win it. A fainter heart than hers would have found impracticable the line of bread-winning that presented itself, but Mrs. Dwyer McMahan showed the white feather only in her hat, as a local wag once remarked.

It was her first trip down-country on the new enterprise, when she came to our old house on that wild night, with her young infant, because, elements or no elements, he was too dependent to be left behind. Mrs. Dwyer McMahan

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knew my father. His journeyings often took him along the backbone of those steep ranges, so blue from our door; so green at closer sight, and yet so inhospitable to the traveller amongst them. Many a time he had thawed his chilled limbs before her fire, and satisfied his hunger with the rough, wholesome fare of her board. And so we knew her well by hearsay, all of us, before that night when her burry voice burst on our home. It was to my father she came, at the start of her enterprise. “Stephenson,” she called him, using his surname as she did with all the men she met, as though she had not time or patience for social flourishes. It was typical of the woman; her speech was not fine, but I think her life was.

“I knew you could put me in the way of getting a few bullocks for a start, Stephenson,” she said, toasting her striped knees by the fire. “I have Shelverton at home to do the butchering; I'll do the buying and droving myself. I'm a better judge of a beast than any of them. There's trade along the mountains; Jamsie can pack the beef to the people.”

That was her scheme, and she worked it out. Jamsie was her eldest boy, and Shelverton one of those handy men who when away from strong drink can turn their hands to anything. The type originated in the digging days. My father saw the scheme was sound, and said so.

I remember that when Mrs. Dwyer McMahan set off for the ranges on the fine bright morning that followed the fury of the night, she had with her several prime young bullocks from our paddocks. We watched her critically selecting them, with my father hoping, I remember, that a certain handsome young animal that had been a pet in his calfhood would not be chosen. Alas for such hopes! The lady butcher was too shrewd to pass a good thing. Our beautiful “Valdemar” (named from some hero of our reading) went forth presently in front of her whip.

After that, with our house as a stopping-place en route to market, if not her journey's end, Mrs. Dwyer McMahan came many a time through the years that followed. No weather deterred or detained her; she came late and early; stayed a night when she could, or was away after a meal.

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The dr-renched infant throve, and no longer occupied the pommel; he helped Shelverton at home, I know, and later took Jamsie's place in the meat delivering, for her boys married young. Her man died and was tucked away with a wooden railing round him in six feet of gravel, somewhere along the range near their house. Still she came and went, always with the white plume, the mare Poll, the striped petticoat, flicking her knee with her riding whip as she walked from the last gate to our house. Strong, confident, self-reliant, a true soul and a brave one. The family grew and vanished, and at last old age and circumstances brought her “down country,” as she always called our part of the world. And so she came to live out her days in a little cottage not so far from my old home but that we might see her sometimes, for Mrs. Dwyer McMahan had won, by long association and her sterling worth, an affection from us. But before she came to her cottage I had gone away from mountains and lowlands alike. Little did I hear of her for years; still less did I see. Then, a year ago, with a flying half-hour to spare before my train left, I went to look on her face again.

She knew me at once, for I was less changed than she, and I fell to talking of old times, as incorrigible as she from her greater age, for reminiscences. We recalled that long-ago night, and I burred her own r's at her till she laughed, though something glistened on her cheek, too. It belonged to thoughts of battles long ago, when life was action, not waiting. I confessed, to chase the tear, how, on that ancient night, Claribel and I had peeped at her in a long alternative vigil through the knothole in the bark wall. In the midst of the restoring laugh, there was the click, click, of cloven hoofs, and the crack of a whip on the road outside. She ran to the door as at a call to arms, I following. “A fine beast, that roan,” she commented, as the cloud of dust rolled behind the passing herd. And in the old eyes was an eager light of pleasure, as the eyes of an old-time belle will shine at the flash of jewels.

Last week I picked up a country paper, and read that Mrs. Dwyer McMahan, undaunted, faithful fighter, devoted wife and mother, had passed away to somewhere far, far beyond the ranges.