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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



The five MacKelvies were well-known “characters” in Karori in the 'nineties. Mrs. MacKelvie, a stout neat little Cockney with “an Australian voice,” was the village washerwoman. She was amusing, and a great talker. Everyone hired her; she knew everything and everyone, and talked to all alike. One of the reasons she was given such free range was that she was either too witty or too wise to gossip indiscriminately. She told a good story page 114 and people were always repeating her philosophic comments on life.

On the day that Mrs. MacKelvie came to wash, the mistress of the house was likely to drift down to the wash-house to listen, while the fat red arms splashed in and out of the foaming tubs, and the Australian voice rose and fell.

She told Mrs. Waters that Zoe, the second eldest, should have been her child. No one knew why. Zoe was apparently rather feeble—not quite bad enough to be exactly “mental.” But Mrs. MacKelvie thought her wonderful. She looked like her mother, with her great wad of crinkled black hair; yet she was untidy and had a silly smile. Lil, the eldest, was the only normal one; she married, later, and had seven children; but she apparently was too normal to interest her mother.“Our Else,” the artistic one, was the mother's favourite. She called her “The Heavenly Child.” They all looked after her. Else used to paint on glass, and Mrs. MacKelvie gave the results about to the people she worked for. This pathetic “little wishbone of a child” cared for only the one thing: she loved to paint. Later, someone taught her to do chromos, and she made huge, unearthly castles, tottering on the brink of dark precipices. Could the child have made up these strange things? Yet they were well drawn. She had undoubted talent of some kind. Framed in ornate gold, they hung on the MacKelvie's parlour walls; and Mrs. MacKelvie said:“What I 'aven't room for on the wall, I 'ang under the bed.”

The grown-ups even used to call at the neat little shack, as they came back from the South Karori page break
Black and white photograph of Chesney Wold, the residence featured in Katherine Mansfield's stories The Aloe and Prelude

Chesney Wold, Karori.

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Black and white photograph of the Mackelvies cottage.

Karori Hills—Home of the Mackelvies.

page break page 115 Road, after visiting the “Bird Man” with the children, or from a picnic. Some one of them surprised the MacKelvies one day when the extras were “hung” not only under the bed, but all over the parlour. The mantelpiece had fallen in the night, and the chairs were loaded with gilded willow twigs; with wax sprays; with velvet stuffed hearts; with china knick-knacks. A tortoise-shell cat leaped madly through the willows and showered painted glass, and water, and last year's catkins. But Mrs. MacKelvie dusted the cleared chair with her apron. Her Australian voice rolled on, unperturbed and hospitable:

“Mum, Our Lord lived in a stable; didn't He? I met Dad on the wharf on Saturday, and married him on Monday, and we lived in a tent. Lil, clear the combustable off that table. Let 'er 'ave 'er tea.”

“Dad” MacKelvie was a little dried man, a “proper” gardener. He trailed in the wake of his wife to work in the gardens while she washed; and if she intrigued the grown-ups, Mr. MacKelvie filled the children with astonishment and admiration.

He had a bushy whiskered face like a cinema close-up—contorting, registering surprise, chagrin, wonder, delight. As he leaned on his hoe over the weeds and rolled his eyes for the children, he made the most extraordinary sounds. When he sneezed, when he cleared his throat, the children stood petrified into dolls by delicious horror and surprise. How such a loud sound could come from such a small man! And his thunderish voice was made to carry against the Wellington wind.

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“I tried to marry once before,” he roared at the children.

“Why didn't you, Mr. MacKelvie?”

“She said ‘no,’ not ‘yes.’”

Finally he went blind, and Mrs. MacKelvie had him put into the “Home for In-curables,” as she called it. There she spent all her time when she wasn't washing. Once, one of the Karori children, who by then was a grown-up herself, was walking through the Home, when she heard the familiar “Australian voice” :

“Isn't that Miss Edy? Come see 'im, Miss Edy. Mr. MacKelvie'll be wantin' to see you. Our Else is married, but 'e seemed a bit soft in the 'ead. I didn't think as she could get on alone, so I sent Zoe, too; an' you might sy as 'e married the both of 'em. But 'e got so bad we sent 'im to Porirua [the asylum]. Now you've got something to go 'ome an' tell the family!”