by Whispering Gums

A post in our series featuring works published in 1924 (or by authors who died in 1924). This post’s subject is a short story published in Melbourne’s The Weekly Times on 31 May 1924, by the Victorian born-writer, Lillian Pyke.

Lillian Pyke (1881-1927) was an Australian children’s writer, who also wrote adult novels under the pseudonym of Erica Maxwell. However, the adult short story we are posting here, was published under her real name, Lillian Pyke. It is longer than our usual offerings here, and it’s a romance, but it offers a delightful insight into the times while showing how little, in many ways, times haven’t changed … see what you think!

Pyke was born Lillian Maxwell Heath, the tenth child to her parents, on 25 August 1881 at Port Fairy, in Victoria. She went to school in Melbourne, and then worked as a teacher and journalist there until she married Richard Dimond Pyke on 7 April 1906. The couple moved to Gympie, Queensland, where he worked as an accountant for a railway construction company. They had three children, before he died by suicide in 1914. Pyke then returned to Melbourne where she took up writing again to support her family. She is the fourth woman writer I have featured this year to date. Two, Marion Simons and Alice Tomholt, never married, and two, Kate Helen Weston and now Lillian Pyke, were widowed with young children. All it seems managed to eke some sort of living from writing.

Pyke appears both in Wikipedia and the Australian dictionary of biography, and Trove searches also produced a few articles about her, so she clearly made some mark on her times. Kingston, in the ADB, says that between 1916 and 1927 she wrote sixteen books that were classified as children’s books, though today they’d probably be classified as Young Adult. She also wrote three novels for adults, as Erica Maxwell. One of these, A wife by proxy (1926), apparently contained Esperanto themes. It was translated into Esperanto, and published in 1930 as Anstataria Edzino. She also wrote A guide to Australian etiquette, edited short story collections, and adapted an Ethel Turner story. Kingston writes that “most of her stories for both children and adults came out of her experience of Queensland railway construction camps or her involvement in education, and had an improving intention”.

Contemporary reviewers and columnists were generally positive about her books. The Queenslander wrote (17 November 1923) that her “stories of public school life in Australia are becoming famous” and suggests that perhaps her “best work is in her descriptive novels with a railway construction camp for a back-ground; but there is no doubt her stories of school life in Australia are almost unrivalled”. The same paper, writing a year later (15 November 1924) says her latest novel Brothers of the fleet is set in “those far-off and almost forgotten days of Australia’s beginning” and is her first attempt at an historical novel. They hope that it’s “the beginning of another rich vein of her imagination”.

Pyke died of renal failure at Brighton, Victoria, on 31 August, 1927. Her obituary in Brisbane’s The Telegraph (8 September) provides a biography, and concludes that they understand that one of her latest books, Three bachelor girls, was being filmed. However, I can find no evidence that that eventuated. Launceston’s Examiner (22 October) offers a more effusive obituary, explaining that having been widowed young, she

gallantly took up the pen as a means of livelihood and it was not long before her name was bracketed with those of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce as the most popular authoress of minor fiction in this part of the world.

Big praise. The Examiner also makes an interesting political point. Having just commented on her having had to work to support her children, it suggests it’s “ironical”

that her death should have occurred just before the first Australian Authors’ Week, which may be the beginnings of better things for those who try to live by the pen out here. In a popularity plebiscite held in connection with this “week” Mrs. Pyke polled remarkably well.

It concludes:

Mrs. Pyke’s work has a rare charm, which is all the more to be appreciated when it is realised that most of her writing was done under great difficulties. She was young always in her outlook, and by no means old in years, and her death at a time when she still had years for development before her is a regrettable loss to Australian literature. She has left a name of which her children can be proud.

Mary’s mother

By Lillian M. Pyke

“It’s hard to believe that this time tomorrow you’ll be bound for the city, Mrs Crossley. You’ll not be stayin’ for the sale, then? There’s a few things I’ve got me eye on meself if the price don’t go too high. That there high chair, now, ‘ud just do for me son Sam’s wee boy. Ah! he’s growing so you wouldn’t know him. Mrs Crossley; has to be strapped into his pram, he does that.”

Mrs Turner stopped to get her breath and take an audible mouthful of tea. She had just “stepped in” (after walking across a few acres of rough stubble land) to say good-bye to her neighbor of 20 years’ standing. Her broad shining face, topped by a straw mushroom hat, formed a striking contrast to the woman on the other side of the deal table, spotless as countless scrubbings could make it. She was a slip of a thing, whose slender frame belied the reputation she possessed in the district for being ready for any emergency in her own household or other people’s.

Scarce a birth, marriage or death had taken place in Crannybrook for the last quarter of a century without Mrs Crossley’s apparently tireless assistance. In many a sick room this grey-haired, blue-eyed handful of a woman would be left in sole possession, ready for anything, from poulticing the patient to picking up the scattered toys and papers of some fractious little invalid.

Mrs Turner’s stream of conversation poured over her head as she sat there in the kitchen she was so soon to leave, along with the memories, sweet and sad of her married life. But at the reference to the high chair her mouth twitched a little. John and Mary had both sat there. She remembered how she had had to tie Mary’s toys to the tray, owing to her incurable habit of throwing them on the floor, apparently for the sole purpose of seeing her young mother pick them up. The memory of long hours spent trying to tempt John to take his food (for he had been one of those babies who prefer playing to eating) came back with a pang.

“I’d be glad for you to have the chair, Mrs Turner,” she said a trifle huskily.

“Will your own son not be wanting it, Mrs Crossley?” asked her neighbor. “Let me see, his little one must be about my Sam’s boy’s age. ‘Twould be nice for you to see your grand-child in it when you visit them in Melbourne.”

Mrs Crossley shook her head. “‘Tis not worth the trouble of taking,” she said. She could not tell even her old friend that she had offered it to John on his last visit, John, who had graduated from the farm to a city stock and station agent’s, where he now held a partnership.

“That shabby old thing!” he had said. “Why, Gladys wouldn’t give it house-room. Wait till you see Ronald’s nursery, mother, furnished by the best Melbourne decorators. Better burn the old thing, I expect it’s reeking with germs.”

But this she had not been able to bring herself to do, and now Robert, her husband, having been gathered to his fathers, the farm and furniture were to be sold, and she herself to go to Melbourne to keep house for Mary in the little flat she had taken when the decision had been come to that mother could not be left alone on the farm.

Brother and sister had met on neutral ground at a city cafe to discuss the best thing to be done for “Mum.” An orchestra discoursed the latest jazz classic to the accompaniment of the clatter of china and cutlery. Though it was mid-day, shaded electric lights shed subdued radiance on the lunchers. Mary, smartly dressed, as became one earning a good wage as corresponding clerk to an importer, made the first contribution:

“I suppose mother will be coming to you, John? Lucky you have that spare room.”

John fingered his closely moustache. “Wouldn’t answer at all old girl. Of course, if I had only myself to consider, nothing would please me better, but Gladys won’t hear of it. Says the mater would ruin Ronald’s digestion. She’s never forgotten that time we were at the farm, and she gave the kid bread and treacle between meals, and him on a specialist’s diet too”.

Mary’s mouth looked a trifle cynical, as it often did when her sister-in-law was quoted. “You and I thrived right on what she gave us, John. But, of course, if Gladys has made up her mind, there’s nothing more to be said.”

John knew better than to take up the gauntlet. “Let’s get some decent body for her to live with that’ll see her,” he went on. “We could each help with the money part.”

Then Mary did speak a little of her mind. “The little mother shan’t be boarded out, John. She’d fret her heart out. No, if you won’t do your duty, I’ll take a little flat somewhere and she can potter about.”

So Mary secured a modest little place in a good district, and did her best to make it look homelike. But this up-setting of her plans did not take place without some self-discipline. It had suited her very well to board at the comfortable house where she had been ever since she had graduated from the country high school to the city. No one questioned her doings. She was free to come and go as she liked. If she wished to go to a theatre or a dance, there was no one to consider but herself. She could weekend in the country with her friends when she felt inclined. In fact, she lived the independent life of an exceedingly modern girl.

She knew that the little country mother looked at life from a very different angle. Her horizon had been limited by the hay-ricks of her neighbors, her pleasure found in their joys and sorrows, her vocabulary was suited to crops, and thrashing, shearing, and dipping. The arrival of a new baby in the district and the school treat were her greatest excitements.

Then, again, there was Peter to consider. Peter Jeffery did a good deal of business with her employer, and a mutual attraction had grown up between them, augmented by little dinners and an occasional theatre. Mary had seen Peter’s mother once. She had met her son outside the building — a lovely, aristocratic woman, beautifully gowned. Loyal though Mary was, she could not help contrasting her with the little faded countrywoman in her prim cotton gown and bonnet perched on her knob of grey hair. Mrs. Jeffery’s voice had floated up through the open window, near which Mary was seated, perfectly modulated and phrased. Mary knew that Peter intended she should meet his mother, but sensed the reason why the meeting was delayed. Peter’s mother was the kind that had to be humored, led up to recognising that her son was thinking of putting another woman in her place.

Mary felt that, left to herself, she could, given the chance, with her own personality and appearance, charm this cultured woman of the world. She had a flair for the right sort of clothes, and her own education, supplemented by reading observation, was no mean one. But she had to confess that, whereas Mary, unattached, might have made the desired impression, Mary, plus a mother, was a different proposition. But though she recognised this with a sigh for what she would have to resign, her resolution to make a home for her mother never faltered, and Mrs Crossley, ignorant of the situation she had so innocently created, settled into the little flat, and began to mother Mary and everyone within sight.

Accustomed in the sparsely-populated Crannybrook district to pass the time of day with each person she met on the roads, Mrs. Crossley naturally gave a cheerful greeting to every man, woman, and child she encountered on her way to purchase the meat and vegetables for the evening meal. The suburb where Mary had settled her mother was quiet and retired, but possessed of the usual number of snobs, and when the spare little figure nodded and beamed as she passed, she was met by a cool stare, and a glance that took her in from top to toe. Certainly the children energetically pedalling toy motor cars or riding up and down the asphalt paths on squeaky tricycles, responded with shy smiles until she was caught in the act of slipping chocolates into the hands of a curly-headed infant. A smartly dressed mother arrived on the scene and glaring at the culprit took away the sweets and threw them into the road. “Haven’t I told you not to take things from strangers,” she said to the whimpering child in a voice raised to reach the old lady.

Mary, knowing well enough that her mother’s impulsive kindness might lead to snubs from the non-understanding, tried to modify it with humorous treatment.

“Have you done your bad deed for the day yet?” she would ask over the cosy evening meal in the tiny dining room — hooking at the white table-linen, the polished silver, the shining glass, and catching the fragrance of a perfectly cooked dinner. Mary had to own to herself that mother certainly made her surroundings much to be preferred to the boarding house to which she had so long been accustomed. What she sacrificed in independence, she had gained in comfort. The taps in the kitchenette shone like gold, the woodwork was white as snow, the gas stove blackly beautiful. But it had hurt for all that when a fellow flatite had asked her if her new charwoman had a day to spare. So with a smile on her pleasant, thoughtful face, and a tiny sigh in her heart, Mary repeated her question: “Well, mother, have you done your bad deed for the day, yet?” Mrs Crossley’s eyes took on a puzzled look which they had never worn at Crannybrook. “Seems as though the Golden Rule ain’t needed here, Mary. Folks is as self-contained as their flats. They’d suspect the Angel Gabriel himself of having an axe to grind if he turned up and offered to give a hand.”

Mary’s eyes twinkled at the vision of a glistening celestial messenger turning up at fhe door of the Electra Mansions. “Why, what now ?” she asked.

“Well, you know that young married woman in the next flat, the one whose husband’s in a warehouse, and who goes into the city in the morning in frocks that look like samples from his stock, all beads and transparent sleeves and things?”

Mary nodded and smiled. “How you sum her up, Mum. I’d never have thought of that.”

“Well, this morning I heard her tell the butter man she couldn’t pay him till next week, so, thinkin’ the poor man might want his money, I ran out and offered to lend it to her if she was short. Mary! you should have seen the look that young woman gave me. ‘Mind your own business,’ she said, just like that, and even the butter man looked at me sort of queer.”

“Poor old mum,” said Mary kindly, “but you know it was rather an awful thing to do! But she needn’t have been so sharp for all that. I’m afraid you have rather a slow time, darling, having to bottle up all your milk of human kindness, because people are not used to the real thing. I hope it doesn’t turn sour.”

Mrs Crossley smiled through the mist that had gathered in her eyes. “I do get a bit lonesome for a neighborly chat sometimes,” she said. “Seems like you live nearer folk when there’s acres of paddocks to cross, than when there’s only a lath and plaster wall between. Did I tell you about me offerin’ to mind Mrs Tracy’s little boy? You remember how wet it was on Monday, and he couldn’t get out? I know what you and John was like when you missed your outing, and he was frettin’ just the same. So I went up and tapped at her door, thinkin’ I might take the little fellow for an hour or so. But, my dear, the words never left my mouth. Mrs Tracy came to the door, and I saw she’d been tryin to do a bit of washin’.

“‘Oh, it’s you, is it?’ she said, ‘come to complain about Cecil’s cry-in’, I suppose. Why don’t you do like me others and go to headquarters? None of the people in this flat were ever young themselves, it seems to me. An old woman like you ought to have more feeling than coming with tales of the noise the child makes’, and slams the door in my face before I had a chance to say a word.”

Mary patted her mother’s hand. “So there isn’t anyone wants you to do as you would be done by?” Her face brightened a little. “I gave the fruit man a cup of tea this morning, dear. He was really grateful, poor fellow.”

Mary put down her cup with a sudden feeling of nausea. She knew that Oriental, with his stained, shabby clothes, yellow teeth and broken, dirt-filled nails. Her mother watched her wonderingly.

“Now, dear, what’s wrong with that?” Mary gulped down her disgust, “Oh, nothing mother, only I hope you gave him a kitchen cup and scalded it well afterwards.”

“Of course I did,” said her mother innocently, “the good ones weren’t big enough.”

In other ways Mary found her mother more adaptable than she had expected. While she had boarded she had to seek her relaxation outside, but now she really had a home she found she did not need to do this unless she wished.

Mary delighted in giving the little country-woman judicious glimpses of Melbourne life. A night at a well-chosen picture, a peep at a beautifully appointed Dance Palais, a tram-trip to the moonlit sea, and enjoyed to the full her mother’s quaint, unworldly comments thereon. It had been the easier to do this that Peter had been away on business to another state, and so had made no demands on her free time. The after-office walks home through the gardens — where he had so often met her “by chance” — had for the time lost their charm. The bright flower beds, the cool, green English trees, the undulating lawns, the tropical fern gullies, the Japanese lilies on the lake, were no more than their labels stated when she walked there alone. Peter’s presence had transformed them into enchanted vistas of color and scent. So it happened that Peter Jeffery knew nothing of the change that had come into Mary’s life, of the presence of the little uncultured woman from the country. But Mary knew that he might be expected back at any time now, and she did not know if she most dreaded or longed for his return.

Mary, loyal and loving though she was to her mother, yet for Peter’s sake wished to impress his mother with the fact that herself and her connections were at least the equal of his. Mary was young enough in experience not to have a proper understanding of values, and the folk among whom she had lived as she rose from junior typiste to private secretary, had done nothing to teach her to ignore that particular kind of snobbery which judges people by their accent and their clothes.

But no premonition of disaster assailed her as she reached the flat on a certain summer evening, after a day which had done its best to keep up Melbourne’s reputation for lightning changes. A day beginning with heat, inducing her to go out in the lightest of clothes, ended in a downpour which caught her without coat or umbrella, so that when she arrived expectant of a hot meal and a cosy fire, to say nothing of sympathetic coddling, she was disagreeably surprised to find her mother not in evidence, though there were signs that she was not far away. In fact, Mary could hear her voice. Surely it came from the flat opposite theirs, which the tenants had left only yesterday. The new folk must have come in, and yes! Mary saw it all clearly, her mother must have (I regret that Mary’s mind was guilty of the expression), “poked in,” an unheard of intrusion in the circumstances. Would she never learn that suburban folk were as different from country ones as chalk from cheese? That what in Crannybrook was regarded as neighborly attention would here be looked upon as frightful impertinence?

Mary slipped out of her wet things and put on a blue frock, which, plain and serviceable as it was, seemed admirably suited to the girl who still retained something of her country coloring and contour. A frown of annoyance was on her brow beneath the softly waving brown hair, when a light tap at the living room door was followed by a familiar step and the figure of Peter. He held out his hands, and Mary, bewildered, yet with fast beating heart, found herself holding them as if to steady herself after the shock.

“I say, Mary, you look more astonished than pleased to see me,” he said, his eyes dancing.

“But I don’t understand,” she began.

“It’s all that wonderful mother of yours,” he said, pulling her into a cosy seat, seemingly built for two. “You see, the mater made up her mind to move into Electra Mansions while I was away, and arranged to be all settled before I came back. But as luck would have it, things were postponed till today, and what with the worry of making the move, the desertion of the ‘char,’ who was to have helped, and a vanman the worse for drink, she was all out when she arrived here, and for a little while things looked very black, household effects pitched in anywhere, gas not connected, stores not arrived, and a nervous sick headache rendering her absolutely incapable.”

Mary’s frown had by this time quite disappeared. She thought she saw a light, but she did not interrupt and Peter went on.

“Then, judging from what the mater has told me, someone resembling an angel in disguise — not so very much disguised, either — made an appearance. Before one could say Jack Robinson, the vanman who had been imbibing in the kitchen from a bottle was inclined to be abusive, was sent packing, and the mater found herself in bed, lying between lavendery sheets — goodness knows where they had been found — a cold compress on her head, presented with a couple of aspirin, followed by (I have her word for this) the best cup of tea she’d ever tasted in her life, and given instructions which she promptly followed, to go to sleep and not worry.

“When she awoke, the furniture was in its place, the blind lowered, the stores arrived and put away, and the gas-man summoned. When I arrived here (I came by the Sydney express, but was detained in the office) an atmosphere of peace pervaded our flat and of something delicious being cooked in yours, of which I am invited to partake in a moment. Now, what magic has been working, eh, Mary?”

“Mother magic,” said Mary. All her fears fled with the wonder and relief of it. How she blessed the fate that had brought Peter and his mother to their particular mansions. But one doubt still remained — Peter, manlike, blundered straight into her thoughts. “The best of it is, darling, I had written and told the mater all about you and me, and now she has discovered the sort of mother you have (for, of course, the two old dears have been gossiping) I can tell you there’s a welcome waiting for you.”

“I don’t deserve it,” said Mary, between tears and smiles. “Oh! Peter, if you only knew what a little beast I’ve been in my heart.”

But Peter’s answer was interrupted by Mrs Crossley’s appearance. Her face was a picture as she saw the son of her friend in need with his arm around Mary. Peter rushed in to fill the breach. “You didn’t know you’d invited your future son-in-law to dinner, did you?” he asked.

“Why, why,” she stammered, “how — when did all this happen?”

“Magic,” said Peter, giving the smooth pink cheek a filial kiss, and would say no more till the Iamb and green peas were on the table, when mutual explanations seemed perfectly satisfactory to those most concerned.


Beverley Kingston, ‘Pyke, Lillian Maxwell (1881–1927)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 2005, accessed online 22 April 2024.

Lillian Pyke, in Wikipedia, accessed 22 April 2024

Lillian Pyke, “Mary’s mother“, in The Weekly Times, 31 May 1924, accessed 16 April 2024

Other sources are linked in the article.


Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.