Harry stood aghast.
"What fun!" said a voice close by him; and he saw that one of the Dragons was lying near, and not joining in the game. He had lost one of the forks of his tongue by accident, and could not bark for a while.
"I'm glad you think it funny," said Harry; "I don't."
"That's right. Snap away!" sneered the Dragon. "You're a perfect treasure. They'll take you in with them the third round."
"Not those creatures?" cried Harry.
"Yes, those creatures. And if I hadn't lost my bark, I'd be the first to lead you off," said the Dragon. "Oh, the game will exactly suit you."
"What is it, please?" Harry asked.
"You'd better not say 'please' to the others," said the Dragon, "if you don't want to have all your hair pulled out. The game is this: You have always to be jumping over somebody else, and you must either talk or bark. If anybody speaks to you, you must snap in return. I need not explain what _snapping_ is. You _know_. If any one by accident gives a civil answer, a clawful of hair is torn out of his head to stimulate his brain. Nothing can be funnier."
"I dare say it suits you capitally," said Harry; "but I'm sure we shouldn't like it. I mean men and women and children. It wouldn't do for us at all."
"Wouldn't it?" said the Dragon. "You don't know how many human beings dance with Dragons on Christmas Eve. If we are kept going in a house till after midnight, we can pull people out of their beds, and take them to dance in Vesuvius."
"Vesuvius!" cried Harry.
"Yes, Vesuvius. We come from Italy originally, you know. Our skins are the color of the Bay of Naples. We live on dry grapes and ardent spirits. We have glorious fun in the mountain sometimes. Oh! what snapping, and scratching, and tearing! Delicious! There are times when the squabbling becomes too great, and Mother Mountain won't stand it, and spits us all out, and throws cinders after us. But this is only at times. We had a charming meeting last year. So many human beings, and how they _can_ snap! It was a choice party. So very select. We always have plenty of saucy children, and servants. Husbands and wives, too, and quite as many of the former as the latter, if not more. But besides these, we had two vestry-men, a country postmaster, who devoted his talents to insulting the public instead of to learning the postal regulations, three cabmen and two 'fares,' two young shop-girls from a Berlin wool shop in a town where there was no competition, four commercial travellers, six landladies, six Old Bailey lawyers, several widows from almshouses, seven single gentlemen, and nine cats, who swore at everything; a dozen sulphur-colored screaming cockatoos; a lot of street children from a town; a pack of mongrel curs from the colonies, who snapped at the human beings' heels, and five elderly ladies in their Sunday bonnets, with prayer-books, who had been fighting for good seats in church."
"Dear me!" said Harry.
"If you can find nothing sharper to say than 'Dear me,'" said the Dragon, "you will fare badly, I can tell you. Why, I thought you'd a sharp tongue, but it's not forked yet, I see. Here they are, however.
Off with you! And if you value your curls--snap!"
And before Harry could reply, the Snap-Dragons came on their third round, and as they passed they swept Harry with them.
He shuddered as he looked at his companions. They were as transparent as shrimps, but of this lovely cerulean blue. And as they leaped they barked--"Howf! Howf!"--like barking Gnus; and when they leaped Harry had to leap with them. Besides barking, they snapped and wrangled with each other; and in this Harry must join also.
"Pleasant, isn't it?" said one of the blue Dragons.
"Not at all," snapped Harry.
"That's your bad taste," snapped the blue Dragon.
"No, it's not!" snapped Harry.
"Then it's pride and perverseness. You want your hair combing."
"Oh, please don't!" shrieked Harry, forgetting himself. On which the Dragon clawed a handful of hair out of his head, and Harry screamed, and the blue Dragons barked and danced.
"That made your hair curl, didn't it?" asked another Dragon, leaping over Harry.
"That's no business of yours," Harry snapped, as well as he could for crying.
"It's more my pleasure than business," retorted the Dragon.
"Keep it to yourself, then," snapped Harry.
"I mean to share it with you, when I get hold of your hair," snapped the Dragon.
"Wait till you get the chance," Harry snapped, with desperate presence of mind.
"Do you know whom you're talking to?" roared the Dragon; and he opened his mouth from ear to ear, and shot out his forked tongue in Harry's face; and the boy was so frightened that he forgot to snap, and cried piteously:
"Oh, I beg your pardon, please don't!"
On which the blue Dragon clawed another handful of hair out of his head, and all the Dragons barked as before.
How long the dreadful game went on Harry never exactly knew. Well practised as he was in snapping in the nursery, he often failed to think of a retort, and paid for his unreadiness by the loss of his hair. Oh, how foolish and wearisome all this rudeness and snapping now seemed to him! But on he had to go, wondering all the time how near it was to twelve o'clock, and whether the Snap-Dragons would stay till midnight and take him with them to Vesuvius.
At last, to his joy, it became evident that the brandy was coming to an end. The Dragons moved slower, they could not leap so high, and at last one after another they began to go out.
"Oh, if they only all of them get away before twelve!" thought poor Harry.
At last there was only one. He and Harry jumped about and snapped and barked, and Harry was thinking with joy that he was the last, when the clock in the hall gave that whirring sound which clocks do before they strike, as if it were clearing its throat.
"Oh, _please_ go!" screamed Harry, in despair.
The blue Dragon leaped up, and took such a clawful of hair out of the boy's head, that it seemed as if part of the skin went, too. But that leap was his last. He went out at once, vanishing before the first stroke of twelve. And Harry was left on his face in the darkness.
When his friends found him there was blood on his forehead. Harry thought it was where the Dragon had clawed him, but they said it was a cut from a fragment of the broken brandy bottle. The Dragons had disappeared as completely as the brandy.
Harry was cured of snapping. He had had quite enough of it for a lifetime, and the catch contradictions of the household now made him shudder. Polly had not had the benefit of his experiences, and yet she improved also.
In the first place, snapping, like other kinds of quarrelling, requires two parties to it, and Harry would never be a party to snapping any more. And when he gave civil and kind answers to Polly's smart speeches, she felt ashamed of herself, and did not repeat them.
In the second place, she heard about the Snap-Dragons. Harry told all about it to her and to the hot-tempered gentleman.
"Now do you think it's true?" Polly asked the hot-tempered gentleman.
"Hum! Ha!" said he, driving his hands through his hair. "You know I warned you you were going to the Snap-Dragons."
Harry and Polly snubbed "the little ones" when they snapped, and utterly discountenanced snapping in the nursery. The example and admonitions of elder children are a powerful instrument of nursery discipline, and before long there was not a "sharp tongue" among all the little Skratdjs.
But I doubt if the parents ever were cured. I don't know if they heard the story. Besides, bad habits are not easily cured when one is old.
I fear Mr. and Mrs. Skratdj have yet got to dance with the Dragons.
UNCLE JACK'S STORY