"Then I'll go to papa and ask."
"Go by all means."
"I won't if you'll tell me truly."
"I sha'n't tell you anything. Go and ask, if you dare," said Harry, only too glad to have the tables turned.
Polly's expedition met with the same fate, and she attempted to cover her retreat in a similar manner.
"Ah! you didn't tell."
"I don't believe you asked papa."
"Don't you? Very well!"
"Well, did you?"
"Never mind." Etc., etc., etc.
Meanwhile Mr. Skratdj scolded Mrs. Skratdj for not keeping the children in better order. And Mrs. Skratdj said it was quite impossible to do so when Mr. Skratdj spoilt Harry as he did, and weakened her (Mrs. Skratdj's) authority by constant interference.
Difference of sex gave point to many of these nursery squabbles, as it so often does to domestic broils.
"Boys never will do what they're asked," Polly would complain.
"Girls ask such unreasonable things," was Harry's retort.
"Not half so unreasonable as the things you ask."
"Ah! that's a different thing! Women have got to do what men tell them, whether it's reasonable or not."
"No, they've not!" said Polly. "At least, that's only husbands and wives."
"All women are inferior animals," said Harry.
"Try ordering mamma to do what you want, and see!" said Polly.
"Men have got to give orders, and women have to obey," said Harry, falling back on the general principle. "And when I get a wife, I'll take care I make her do what I tell her. But you'll have to obey your husband when you get one."
"I won't have a husband, and then I can do as I like."
"Oh, won't you? You'll try to get one, I know. Girls always want to be married."
"I'm sure I don't know why," said Polly; "they must have had enough of men if they have brothers."
And so they went on, _ad infinitum_, with ceaseless arguments that proved nothing and convinced nobody, and a continual stream of contradiction that just fell short of downright quarreling.
Indeed, there was a kind of snapping even less near to a dispute than in the cases just mentioned. The little Skratdjs, like some other children, were under the unfortunate delusion that it sounds clever to hear little boys and girls snap each other up with smart sayings, and old and rather vulgar play upon words, such as:
"I'll give you a Christmas box. Which ear will you have it on?"
"I won't stand it."
"Pray take a chair."
"You shall have it to-morrow."
"To-morrow never comes."
And so if a visitor kindly began to talk to one of the children, another was sure to draw near and "take up" all the first child's answers, with smart comments and catches that sounded as silly as they were tiresome and impertinent.
And ill-mannered as this was, Mr. and Mrs. Skratdj never put a stop to it. Indeed, it was only a caricature of what they did themselves. But they often said, "We can't think how it is the children are always squabbling!"
It is wonderful how the state of mind of a whole household is influenced by the heads of it. Mr. Skratdj was a very kind master, and Mrs. Skratdj was a very kind mistress, and yet their servants lived in a perpetual fever of irritability that fell just short of discontent.
They jostled each other on the back stairs, said harsh things in the pantry, and kept up a perennial warfare on the subject of the duty of the sexes with the general man servant. They gave warning on the slightest provocation.
The very dog was infected by the snapping mania. He was not a brave dog, he was not a vicious dog, and no high breeding sanctioned his pretensions to arrogance. But, like his owners, he had contracted a bad habit, a trick, which made him the pest of all timid visitors, and indeed of all visitors whatsoever.
The moment any one approached the house, on certain occasions when he was spoken to, and often in no traceable connection with any cause at all, Snap, the mongrel, would rush out, and bark in his little sharp voice--"Yap! yap! yap!" If the visitor made a stand, he would bound away sideways on his four little legs; but the moment the visitor went on his way again, Snap was at his heels--"Yap! yap! yap!" He barked at the milkman, the butcher's boy, and the baker, though he saw them every day. He never got used to the washerwoman, and she never got used to him. She said he "put her in mind of that there black dog in the 'Pilgrim's Progress.'" He sat at the gate in summer, and yapped at every vehicle and every pedestrian who ventured to pass on the high road. He never but once had the chance of barking at burglars; and then, though he barked long and loud, nobody got up, for they said, "It's only Snap's way." The Skratdjs lost a silver teapot, a Stilton cheese, and two electro christening mugs on this occasion; and Mr. and Mrs. Skratdj dispute who it was who discouraged reliance on Snap's warning to the present day.
One Christmas time, a certain hot-tempered gentleman came to visit the Skratdjs,--a tall, sandy, energetic young man, who carried his own bag from the railway. The bag had been crammed rather than packed, after the wont of bachelors; and you could see where the heel of a boot distended the leather, and where the bottle of shaving-cream lay. As he came up to the house, out came Snap as usual--"Yap! yap! yap!" Now the gentleman was very fond of dogs, and had borne this greeting some dozen of times from Snap, who for his part knew the visitor quite as well as the washerwoman, and rather better than the butcher's boy. The gentleman had good, sensible, well-behaved dogs of his own, and was greatly disgusted with Snap's conduct. Nevertheless he spoke kindly to him; and Snap, who had had many a bit from his plate, could not help stopping for a minute to lick his hand. But no sooner did the gentleman proceed on his way, than Snap flew at his heels in the usual fashion--
"Yap! Yap! Yap!"
On which the gentleman--being hot-tempered, and one of those people with whom it is (as they say) a word and a blow, and the blow first--made a dash at Snap, and Snap taking to his heels, the gentleman flung his carpet-bag after him. The bottle of shaving-cream hit upon a stone and was smashed. The heel of the boot caught Snap on the back and sent him squealing to the kitchen. And he never barked at that gentleman again.
If the gentleman disapproved of Snap's conduct, he still less liked the continual snapping of the Skratdj family themselves. He was an old friend of Mr. and Mrs. Skratdj, however, and knew that they were really happy together, and that it was only a bad habit which made them constantly contradict each other. It was in allusion to their real affection for each other, and their perpetual disputing, that he called them the "Snapping Turtles."
When the war of words waxed hottest at the dinner-table between his host and hostess, he would drive his hands through his shock of sandy hair, and say, with a comical glance out of his umber eyes: "Don't flirt, my friends. It makes a bachelor feel awkward."
And neither Mr. nor Mrs. Skratdj could help laughing.
With the little Skratdjs his measures were more vigorous. He was very fond of children, and a good friend to them. He grudged no time or trouble to help them in their games and projects, but he would not tolerate their snapping up each other's words in his presence. He was much more truly kind than many visitors, who think it polite to smile at the sauciness and forwardness which ignorant vanity leads children so often to "show off" before strangers. These civil acquaintances only abuse both children and parents behind their backs, for the very bad habits which they help to encourage.
The hot-tempered gentleman's treatment of his young friends was very different. One day he was talking to Polly, and making some kind inquiries about her lessons, to which she was replying in a quiet and sensible fashion, when up came Master Harry, and began to display his wit by comments on the conversation, and by snapping at and contradicting his sister's remarks, to which she retorted; and the usual snap-dialogue went on as usual.
"Then you like music?" said the hot-tempered gentleman.
"Yes, I like it very much," said Polly.
"Oh, do you?" Harry broke in. "Then what are you always crying over it for?"
"I'm not always crying over it."
"Yes, you are."
"No, I'm not. I only cry sometimes, when I stick fast."