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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Domestic Tyrant

By Augusta Larned (1835–1924)

[Born in Rutland, Jefferson Co., N. Y., 1835. Died, 1924. Village Photographs. 1887.]

THERE is a drive called the Roundabout Road, which makes a circuit of exactly seven miles, and takes in some of the pleasantest bits of scenery in this region. The hills are nowhere very steep, and there are many old horses in the village that know the Roundabout Road as well as their own stalls. It crosses several brawling trout streams and rustic bridges, and passes the prettiest watering-troughs, where the gushing mountain springs, bright and mobile as quicksilver, run through channels made in mossy logs. Near one of these grows a bed of the wild forget-me-not with its eyes of heavenly blue. The arethusa is now to be found on the river meadows. It is of a purple such as is only seen in evening and morning clouds. Before many weeks have passed the fringed gentian will open along the drive, in such places as it has chosen for its habitat.

At Dexter’s chair-factory the Roundabout enters a little glen fringed to the very top of its walls with the light foliage of young birches, beeches, chestnuts, and ash trees. Late in the season this place wears the aspect of early spring; and in the cool crevices of its rocks ice is found until July. The hermit thrush builds and sings here, and may be heard at some moment of rare good fortune. Autumn comes first to this spot and runs like fire in the low undergrowth. The sumac bushes turn the most brilliant dyes. The young maple shoots are red like blood. The ash shrubs seem to drip with gold.

Many people drive over the Roundabout Road every fair day. It is a road that never wearies, for the hills are continually changing under the varying influences of light and shade, heat and cold, wind and fair weather. Several retired clergymen and college professors live in the village, having come here to pass their last years. Nearly all of them keep slow, ambling, sure-footed nags, who possess all the equine virtues except speed and the power to raise their noses more than three or four inches above the dust. They amble along, never varying their gait except to stop stock still. In the retired clerical set it is considered a sin to use a check-rein or a whip. They are mostly mild, quiet, old ladies and gentlemen who belong to the past, but have lingered along into the present with the understanding that they are practically laid upon the shelf. Though they have once doubtless been important and celebrated, it is conceded that their day is over, and they are just biding their time and trying to make themselves as comfortable as circumstances and small incomes may permit.

Chief among the superannuated clericals is the Rev. Elkanah Stackpole. He occasionally preaches in the village church, when most of the congregation scatters, some to visit their friends in the country, others to go blueberrying or nutting on the sly. The few who do attend church from conscientious motives generally fall asleep in the pews. It is thought that if Mr. Stackpole were to preach three consecutive Sundays every soul would desert the church except old Amen Anderson, who is as deaf as a post and who says he always goes to meeting, whoever preaches, for “innerd edification.” You will know Amen by his standing up in his corner and singing the hymns on a plan of his own. He pays no heed to anybody or anything except long and short meter.

The Rev. Mr. Stackpole halts in his walk from chronic rheumatism, and Mrs. Stackpole is a nervous invalid. They live in an old-fashioned gambrel-roofed house, where perpetual quietude and twilight formerly reigned, a green twilight thrown from the thick trees growing close to the windows, and from the prevailing tone of the furnishing. Everybody in the village knew the Stackpole’s maid, Araminta Sophronia, called Minty for short, and the Stackpole’s horse, Spicer. Spicer used to trot over Roundabout Road every fine day in summer. He came to the door about nine in the morning from the stable where he was kept. Minty bustled out with two air-cushions for the excellent couple to sit on. She was also provided with an armful of wraps and umbrellas and a hassock for Mrs. Stackpole’s feet. The operation of loading the Stackpoles into the chaise was a difficult one, but Minty was always equal to it. When she had once tucked them in under the lap-blanket, and the Rev. Elkanah had feebly grasped the reins, she then turned her attention to Spicer.

If Spicer was in the mood, he would start off promptly, and keep up a slow trot for a certain length of time. If Spicer was not in the mood, he would lay back his ears, and shake his head positively. Then began a coaxing process on the part of Minty. She patted him, whispered in his ear, and generally administered one or two lumps of white sugar, when Spicer, being placated, would dart off so suddenly as to throw Mr. and Mrs. Stackpole against the back of the chaise. But Minty knew that, if she once succeeded in starting Spicer, he might be trusted to bring the old couple home in perfect safety. There were places on the road where he persisted in walking, and he had even been known to stop in shady spots, spite of all the Rev. Elkanah could do, to crop a little tender herbage. When he had swung partly round the circle, he began to smell the stable, and generally came home in fine style.

Minty ruled for many years in the Stackpole house. She was an admirable housekeeper, but having usurped supreme power, the vice of power, a tyrannical and overbearing spirit, grew upon her. Few great minds can resist the temptation of power, and Minty was not a great mind. The old people came to feel that Minty was indispensable to their comfort and well-being, and the ability to govern themselves gradually slipped through their fingers. No one in that house attempted to oppose Minty except Fielding Stackpole, the only son, who was a civil engineer, living in another state. When Fielding came home on a visit, as he did several times a year, he brushed aside all Minty’s rules and regulations. He smoked where he pleased, carried the parlor chairs out on the lawn and left them there, tumbled the book-cases, came down late to breakfast and ordered fresh coffee and hot buttered toast, exactly as if he were the master in his father’s house and not at all subject to the rule of Queen Araminta Sophronia.

The conflict of wills between Fielding and the maid put a very sharp edge on Minty’s temper, while Fielding always came up more and more bland and smiling, with the conviction that he should win in the end. Minty had carried it so far as once or twice to refuse Fielding admission to his father’s house when he arrived unexpectedly late at night, on the ground that she was house-cleaning and the rooms were all in disorder. But Fielding calmly climbed in at a pantry window and established himself without ceremony in his own room. After Fielding’s visits the old people were always more insubordinate, and it gave her a little trouble to break them in again to rules and regulations.

Minty, in spite of her name, did not come from Burnt Pigeon, but from a place down the river, called Salt Lick. She was always talking about the Lick in a most misleading way, as if it were something to eat. The Lick hung like the sword of Damocles over the head of poor Mrs. Stackpole, especially after the old people came to feel that in their helpless state they could live neither with nor without their domestic tyrant, for Minty often threatened to leave her at a moment’s notice, and return to the home of her infancy.

It was understood that Minty had married a Salt Lick man in her girlhood who had not proved a brilliant ornament to society. She soon rid herself of the encumbrance. She never mentioned this part of her experience, but the asperity with which she spoke of mankind in general, and of Fielding Stackpole in particular, was supposed to have sprung from a thorough acquaintance with the sex. She was of a thin, wiry type, not very large, but with muscles of steel. Her face came to a sharp hatchet edge, and her gray eyes, mottled with yellow, saw everything. She was confessedly the smartest servant in the village, and she had a standing of her own.

Her neatness, of the inflexible, cast-iron kind, was a terror to the neighborhood. Even particular housekeepers trembled under her dreadful cat’s eyes. Her house-cleaning was thought to be as bad as the concentrated three movings which equal a fire. But the excellences of Minty were as pronounced as her foibles. A tea-invitation to the Stackpoles was something to date from. The ladies seldom took much dinner on those days, in order to save their appetites for Minty’s dainties. If the invaluable servant did not sit down in the parlor with the guests, or preside at the tea-table, she still carried off the honors of the occasion. Everybody praised her cookery to the skies, and it was a great point to ask for Minty’s receipts, which she gave or not, just as the whim seized her.

Her tea-table was a work of art, and she adorned it with a tasteful arrangement of flowers from the garden. The old-fashioned Stackpole china, glass, and silver, were burnished to exquisite brightness. The napery was ironed only as Minty knew how to iron. Her tea-biscuits melted in the mouth. Her cake was always something new and original. She knew all about potted tongue, veal loaf, boned turkey, and brandied peaches. Such coffee, whipped cream, and sherbet as she made were never found elsewhere. So it was in every department of housekeeping. A favorite subject of debate among the village ladies was whether it would be possible to endure Minty’s tyranny for the sake of her culinary virtues. The shameful subjection of the old clergyman and his wife to this strong-willed domestic was a standing topic of discussion among the village gossips. Every fresh usurpation on the part of Minty was commented on with exclamation points. She knew she was talked about, and it made her proud. She fully expected to be buried in the Stackpole family lot, and to have a coffin-plate equal to her master and mistress. It was reported that poor Mrs. Stackpole said one day to Minty: “I have asked my sister Jane and her daughter to come and pass the day with me on Thursday next.” To which Minty immediately replied: “I can’t think of having them on Thursday, ma’am. There’s the sweet pickles to make, and I must clean out the cellar. I never can have company days when I am cleaning out the cellar. It’s unreasonable to think of it.” Minty always planned to clean out the cellar when the idea of company was obnoxious to her. Mrs. Stackpole was therefore obliged to telegraph to “Sister Jane” that she must not come. And she found herself more and more the bond-slave of her incomparable domestic.

The ex-professor had made a brave effort to secure some portion of his own house for his exclusive use and benefit, which should not be too ruthlessly invaded by the broom and duster. He wished to set apart a small closet where he might think his own thoughts, and doubtless pray, where he might occasionally indite a sermon or a report of the missionary society for carrying the Gospel to the Zulus, of which he was secretary. But all in vain. Araminta Sophronia did not believe the best of men could think holy thoughts in any place from which her cleaning hand was excluded. If she could have taken out the conscience of poor old Stackpole from his bosom, she would doubtless have washed and scoured it. For years he was forced to see his desk, his pens, his papers arranged in an order foreign to his soul. But no one had ever done up his fine shirts and white neckcloths like Minty; and when he was ill her broths and gruels were delicious. Minty always attended family prayers and sometimes read devotional books, not because she had a taste for them, but for the reason that she lived in a minister’s family, and was bound to keep up the character of the household. It looked well to have a volume of dry sermons on the kitchen shelf and illuminated Bible texts hung about on the wall.

When Minty first went to live with the Stackpoles, she made up her mind that she would not allow them to harbor poor ministers, religious book-pedlers, or itinerant missionaries. They were accordingly sent on to Deacon Hildreth’s, to the old Tavern House, or to the doctor’s. And the old couple, as they could not help themselves, were rather grateful for the protection they enjoyed. Occasionally guests from a distance came to stay at the house unannounced and before Minty’s fiat could reach them. As there was no hotel in the village at that time, Minty could not turn them out of doors. But she always discriminated against city visitors. She forced them to unpack their trunks in the barn. She thought country folk much the cleaner. Minty knew how to make herself very disagreeable to guests without letting the old people know anything about it. She had been sometimes approached with “tips” in the hope of placating her dragonship, but she repelled all attempts at bribery and corruption with scorn. No one except Fielding Stackpole ever stayed more than five days in the old minister’s house. The neighbors kept close watch to see if the rule were infringed.

There comes a day of reckoning for all tyrants. The standing quarrel between Minty and Fielding had never been healed. The best they could do was to proclaim a truce. Though the warfare often broke out afresh, still they could manage to exist together under the same roof a few weeks each year. It was a terrible blow to Minty, therefore, when the marriage of Fielding Stackpole was announced, and of all things to one of those “hity-tity, good-for-nothing city jades.” Another great blow was the fact that Fielding and his bride were coming home to pass the summer. Old Mrs. Stackpole did not even ask Minty’s permission to have them come. Reënforced by a strong letter from Fielding, she simply said it would be a great pity if her children could not come to their father’s house whenever it suited their convenience. This sounded like the tocsin of open rebellion, and Minty’s soul was troubled within her. She saw that the old lady had already taken the bride into her heart. But that night Mrs. Stackpole had a nervous attack, and Minty rubbed her and worked over her for several hours. She was always good in illness; and the old woman tacitly asked her pardon. Things were in this unsatisfactory state when Mr. and Mrs. Fielding Stackpole arrived. As a first act of resistance, Fielding refused to have his wife’s trousseau inspected and fumigated in the barn by the domestic customs officer. Minty, though she had to yield this point, felt strong in her intrenched position, for she was certain the Stackpoles could not live without her. Fielding felt strong in his position of son, especially when supported by a young, bright-eyed woman who looked upon him as a great moral hero, although he had never done anything to merit hero-worship. He, however, felt it would be a noteworthy thing to deliver his aged parents from domestic servitude. The bride was now the great centre of attraction. The old people petted her and received her pettings in a way Minty thought perfectly silly. Everybody admired her pretty costumes, her piano-playing, and the fact that she spoke French like a native. The neighbors were running in at all hours. Meals were irregular. The lights were no longer put out in the house exactly at half-past nine. The window screens were left out, and flies buzzed through the rooms.

Minty endured it as long as she could, until, like Spicer, she felt that her time had come to balk. Mrs. Fielding Stackpole’s star was in the ascendant; hers was on the wane. Her main hope lay in the old lady’s nervous attacks, which no one could allay but herself. The time had come to try her strength with Fielding. It was at a moment when the minister was absent from home, and Mrs. Stackpole was in her own room with her daughter-in-law. There was a terrible scene, but in the end Minty packed her trunk, took an angry leave of the household, and departed for Salt Lick—departed expecting perfect submission on the part of the old people as soon as the loss was felt, and to return in triumph at the end of a few days, to the total routing of Fielding and his wife.

She found herself ill at ease at Salt Lick. She was a person of not the least moment to the Salt Lickers. Day by day she expected her recall to the Stackpole kitchen, and when a week, a fortnight, a month passed without the summons, she could restrain her anxious curiosity no longer. Old Mrs. Stackpole might have died, anything might have happened in the absence of the grand vizier. She therefore took the train one morning and unsummoned returned to the village. The old people were going out for a drive on the Roundabout. Spicer stood at the door. Presently they came forth, attended by the daughter-in-law in a charming white morning costume. They mounted the chaise without assistance, and Minty remarked that they seemed unusually young and spry. Even Spicer moved off briskly with nothing more than a pat from Mrs. Fielding’s fair hand. Minty reconnoitred the house in a state of mental collapse. All looked calm and peaceful. No domestic earthquake had shaken the foundations because of her absence. She stole round to the kitchen. Phemy Jones, a young thing she knew quite well, was standing in the door. Phemy Jones to come after her! The thought of the course of bad cooking the Stackpoles had gone through gave Araminta Sophronia a feeling of exultation. Phemy met her with no outward sign of deference, and she walked into the kitchen and looked about with lynx eyes.

“And do you do the cooking for the family, Phemy Jones?” she asked sotto voce. “I’m a learner,” responded Phemy, evasively. “And pray, who is teaching you, Phemy Jones?” “Young Mrs. Stackpole. She is a splendid cook, and the old people are just in love with her. Everybody says they are growing young again.” Minty arose in a dazed way, shook her skirts, and went out of the door. The first person she encountered on the garden path was Fielding Stackpole, with a satirical smile on his face, as he looked into the eyes of his old enemy.

“I hope you are satisfied now,” she blurted out, with a feeling of hot tears in her eyes.

“Oh, yes,” returned Fielding, “perfectly satisfied, Minty. I married the head scholar in the Boston Cooking School; and I knew I was safe.”

Minty has taken another situation in the village, but her glory has departed. She no longer hopes to be buried in the Stackpole lot and to have a coffin-plate equal to that of her old master.