Domestic Despots by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Those who walk through the well-to-do quarters of our city, and glance, perhaps a little enviously as they pass, toward the cheerful firesides, do not reflect that in almost every one of these apparently happy homes a pitiless tyrant reigns, a misshapen monster without bowels of compassion or thought beyond its own greedy appetites, who sits like Sinbad’s awful burden on the necks of tender women and distracted men. Sometimes this incubus takes the form of a pug, sometimes of a poodle, or simply a bastard cur admitted to the family bosom in a moment of unreflecting pity; size and pedigree are of no importance; the result is always the same. Once Caliban is installed in his stronghold, peace and independence desert that roof.

We read daily of fathers tyrannizing over trembling families, of stepmothers and unnatural children turning what might be happy homes into amateur Infernos, and sigh, as we think of martyrdoms endured by overworked animals.

It is cheering to know that societies have been formed for the protection of dumb brutes and helpless children. Will no attempt be made to alleviate this other form of suffering, which has apparently escaped the eye of the reformer?

The animal kingdom is divided-like all Gaul-into three divisions: wild beasts, that are obliged to hustle for themselves; laboring and producing animals, for which man provides because they are useful to him-and dogs! Of all created things on our globe the canine race have the softest “snap.” The more one thinks about this curious exception in their favor the more unaccountable it appears. We neglect such wild things as we do not slaughter, and exact toil from domesticated animals in return for their keep. Dogs alone, shirking all cares and labor, live in idle comfort at man’s expense.

When that painful family jar broke up the little garden party in Eden and forced our first parents to work or hunt for a living, the original Dog (equally disgusted with either alternative) hit on the luminous idea of posing as the champion of the disgraced couple, and attached himself to Adam and Eve; not that he approved of their conduct, but simply because he foresaw that if he made himself companionable and cosy he would be asked to stay to dinner.

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From that day to the present, with the exception of occasionally watching sheep and houses-a lazy occupation at the best-and a little light carting in Belgium (dogs were given up as turn-spits centuries ago, because they performed that duty badly), no canine has raised a paw to do an honest day’s work, neither has any member of the genus been known voluntarily to perform a useful act.

How then-one asks one’s self in a wonder-did the myth originate that Dog was the friend of Man? Like a multitude of other fallacies taught to innocent children, this folly must be unlearned later. Friend of man, indeed! Why, the “Little Brothers of the Rich” are guileless philanthropists in comparison with most canines, and unworthy to be named in the same breath with them. Dogs discovered centuries ago that to live in luxury, it was only necessary to assume an exaggerated affection for some wealthy mortal, and have since proved themselves past masters in a difficult art in which few men succeed. The number of human beings who manage to live on their friends is small, whereas the veriest mongrel cur contrives to enjoy food and lodging at some dupe’s expense.

Facts such as these, however, have not over-thrown the great dog myth. One can hardly open a child’s book without coming across some tale of canine intelligence and devotion. My tender youth was saddened by the story of one disinterested dog that refused to leave his master’s grave and was found frozen at his post on a bleak winter’s morning. With the experience of years in pet dogs I now suspect that, instead of acting in this theatrical fashion, that pup trotted home from the funeral with the most prosperous and simple-minded couple in the neighborhood, and after a substantial meal went to sleep by the fire. He must have been a clever dog to get so much free advertisement, so probably strolled out to his master’s grave the next noon, when people were about to hear him, and howled a little to keep up appearances.

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I have written “the richest and most simple minded couple,” because centuries of self-seeking have developed in these beasts an especial aptitude for spotting possible victims at a glance. You will rarely find dogs coquetting with the strong-minded or wasting blandishments where there is not the probability of immediate profit; but once let even a puppy get a tenderhearted girl or aged couple under his influence, no pity will be shown the victims.

There is a house not a square away from Mr. Gerry’s philanthropic headquarters, where a state of things exists calculated to extract tears from a custom-house official. Two elderly virgins are there held in bondage by a Minotaur no bigger than your two fists. These good dames have a taste for travelling, but change of climate disagrees with their tyrant. They dislike house-keeping and, like good Americans, would prefer hotel life, nevertheless they keep up an establishment in a cheerless side street, with a retinue of servants, because, forsooth, their satrap exacts a back yard where he can walk of a morning. These spinsters, although loving sisters, no longer go about together, Caligula’s nerves being so shaken that solitude upsets them. He would sooner expire than be left alone with the servant, for the excellent reason that his bad temper and absurd airs have made him dangerous enemies below stairs-and he knows it!

Another household in this city revolves around two brainless, goggle-eyed beasts, imported at much expense from the slopes of Fuji-yama. The care that is lavished on those heathen monsters passes belief. Maids are employed to carry them up and down stairs, and men are called in the night to hurry for a doctor when Chi has over-eaten or Fu develops colic; yet their devoted mistress tells me, with tears in her eyes, that in spite of this care, when she takes her darlings for a walk they do not know her from the first stranger that passes, and will follow any boy who whistles to them in the street.

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What revolts me in the character of dogs is that, not content with escaping from the responsibilities entailed on all the other inhabitants of our globe by the struggle for existence, these four-legged Pecksniffs have succeeded in making for themselves a fallacious reputation for honesty and devotion. What little lingering belief I had in canine fidelity succumbed then I was told that St. Bernards-those models of integrity and courage-have fallen into the habit of carrying the flasks of brandy that the kind monks provide for the succor of snowbound travellers, to the neighboring hamlets and exchanging the contents for-chops!

Will the world ever wake to the true character of these four-legged impostors and realize that instead of being disinterested and sincere, most family pets are consummate hypocrites. Innocent? Pshaw! Their pretty, coaxing ways and pretences of affection are unadulterated guile; their ostentatious devotion, simply a clever manœuvre to excite interest and obtain unmerited praise. It is useless, however, to hope that things will change. So long as this giddy old world goes on waltzing in space, so long shall we continue to be duped by shams and pin our faith on frauds, confounding an attractive bearing with a sweet disposition and mistaking dishevelled hair and eccentric appearance for brains. Even in the Orient, where dogs have been granted immunity from other labor on the condition that they organized an effective street-cleaning department, they have been false to their trust and have evaded their contracts quite as if they were Tammany braves, like whom they pass their days in slumber and their nights in settling private disputes, while the city remains uncleaned.

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I nurse yet another grudge against the canine race! That Voltaire of a whelp, who imposed himself upon our confiding first parents, must have had an important pull at headquarters, for he certainly succeeded in getting the decree concerning beauty and fitness which applies to all mammals, including man himself, reversed in favor of dogs, and handed down to his descendants the secret of making defects and deformities pass current as qualities. While other animals are valued for sleek coats and slender proportions, canine monstrosities have always been in demand. We do not admire squints or protruding under jaws in our own race, yet bulldogs have persuaded many weak-minded people that these defects are charming when combined in an individual of their breed.

The fox in the fable, who after losing his tail tried to make that bereavement the fashion, failed in his undertaking; Dutch canal-boat dogs have, however, been successful where the fox failed, and are to-day pampered and prized for a curtailment that would condemn any other animal (except perhaps a Manx cat) to a watery grave at birth.

I can only recall two instances where canine sycophants got their deserts; the first tale (probably apocryphal) is about a donkey, for years the silent victim of a little terrier who had been trained to lead him to water and back. The dog-as might have been expected-abused the situation, while pretending to be very kind to his charge, never allowed him to roll on the grass, as he would have liked, or drink in peace, and harassed the poor beast in many other ways, getting, however, much credit from the neighbors for devotion and intelligence. Finally, one day after months of waiting, the patient victim’s chance came. Getting his tormentor well out into deep water, the donkey quietly sat down on him.

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The other tale is true, for I knew the lady who provided in her will that her entire establishment should be kept up for the comfort and during the life of the three fat spaniels that had solaced her declining years. The heirs tried to break the will and failed; the delighted domestics, seeing before them a period of repose, proceeded (headed by the portly housekeeper) to consult a “vet” as to how the life of the precious legatees might be prolonged to the utmost. His advice was to stop all sweets and rich food and give each of the animals at least three hours of hard exercise a day. From that moment the lazy brutes led a dog’s life. Water and the detested “Spratt” biscuit, scorned in happier days, formed their meagre ordinary; instead of somnolent airings in a softly cushioned landau they were torn from chimney corner musings to be raced through cold, muddy streets by a groom on horseback.

Those two tales give me the keenest pleasure. When I am received on entering a friend’s room with a chorus of yelps and attacked in dark corners by snarling little hypocrites who fawn on me in their master’s presence, I humbly pray that some such Nemesis may be in store for these faux bonhommes before they leave this world, as apparently no provision has been made for their punishment in the next.

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