Once upon a time there lived a certain family of the name of
Skratdj. (It has a Russian or Polish look, and yet they most certainly lived in
England.) They were remarkable for the following peculiarity. They seldom
seriously quarrelled, but they never agreed about anything. It is hard to say
whether it were more painful for their friends to hear them constantly
contradicting each other, or gratifying to discover that it "meant nothing,”
and was "only their way."
It began with the father and mother. They were a worthy
couple, and really attached to each other. But they had a habit of
contradicting each other’s statements, and opposing each other’s opinions,
which, though mutually understood and allowed for in private, was most trying
to the bystanders in public. If one related an anecdote, the other would break
in with half-a-dozen corrections of trivial details of no interest or importance
to anyone, the speakers included. For instance: Suppose the two dining in a
strange house, and Mrs. Skratdj seated by the host, and contributing to the
small-talk of the dinner-table. Thus:—
"Oh, yes. Very changeable weather indeed. It looked
quite promising yesterday morning in the town, but it began to rain at noon.”
"A quarter past eleven, my dear,” Mr. Skratdj’s voice
would be heard to say from several chairs down, in the corrective tones of a
husband and father; "and really, my dear, so far from being a promising
morning, I must say it looked about as threatening as it well could. Your memory
is not always accurate in small matters, my love.”
But Mrs. Skratdj had not been a wife and a mother for
fifteen years, to be snuffed out at one snap of the marital snuffers. As Mr.
Skratdj leaned forward in his chair, she leaned forward in hers, and defended
herself across the intervening couples.
”Why, my dear Mr. Skratdj, you said yourself the weather had
not been so promising for a week."
”What I said, my dear, pardon me, was that the barometer was
higher than it had been for a week. But, as you might have observed if these details
were in your line, my love, which they are not, the rise was extraordinarily rapid, and there is no surer sign of
unsettled Weather. But Mrs. Skratdj is apt to forget these unimportant
trifles,” he added, with a comprehensive smile round the dinner-table; ”her
thoughts are very properly absorbed by the more important domestic questions of
"Now I think that's rather unfair on Mr. Skratdj’s
part,” Mrs. Skratdj would chirp, with a smile quite as affable and as general
as her husband’s. ”I’m sure he's quite as forgetful and inaccurate as Iam. And
I don't think my memory is at all a bad one.”
"You forgot the dinner hour when we were going out to
dine last week, nevertheless,” said Mr. Skratdj.
"And you couldn't help me when I asked you," was
the sprightly retort. "And I’m sure it’s not like you to forget anything
about dinner, my dear.”
"The letter was addressed to you,” said Mr. Skratdj.
”I sent it to you by Jemima,” said Mrs. Skratdj.
”I didn't read it,” said Mr. Skratdj.
”Well, you burnt it,” said Mrs. Skratdj; ”and, as I always
say, there’s nothing more foolish than burning a letter of invitation before
the day, for one is certain to forget.”
”I’ve no doubt you always do say it,” Mr. Skratdj remarked, with
a smile, "but I certainly never remember to have heard the observation
from your lips, my love.”
"Whose memory’s in fault there?” asked Mrs. Skratdj
triumphantly; and as at this point the ladies rose, Mrs. Skratdj had the last
Indeed, as may be gathered from this conversation, Mrs.
Skratdj was quite able to defend herself. When she was yet a bride, and young
and timid, she used to collapse when Mr. Skratdj
contradicted her statements, and set her stories straight in public. Then she
hardly ever opened her lips without disappearing under the domestic
extinguisher. But in the course of fifteen years she had learned that Mr.
Skratdj’s bark was a great deal worse than his bite. (If, indeed, he had a bite
at all.) Thus snubs that made other people's ears tingle, had no effect whatever
on the lady to whom they were addressed, for she knew exactly what they were
worth, and had by this time become fairly adept at snapping in return.
In the days when she succumbed she was occasionally unhappy, but now she and her husband understood each other, and, having agreed to differ, they unfortunately agreed also to differ in public. Indeed, it was the by-standers who had the worst of it on these
occasions. To the worthy couple themselves the habit had become second nature,
and in no way affected the friendly tenor of their domestic relations. They would
interfere with each other’s conversation, contradicting assertions, and
disputing conclusions for a whole evening; and then, when all the world and his
wife thought that these ceaseless sparks of bickering must blaze up into a flaming
quarrel as soon as they were alone, they would bowl amicably home in a cab, criticizing
the friends who were commenting upon them, and as little agreed about the
events of the evening as about the details of any other events whatever.
Yes; the by-standers certainly had the worst of it. Those
who were near wished themselves anywhere else, especially when appealed to.
Those who were at a distance did not mind so much. A domestic squabble at a certain
distance is interesting, like an engagement viewed from a point beyond the
range of guns. In such a position one may someday be placed oneself! Moreover,
it gives a touch of excitement to a dull evening to be able to say sotto voce
to one’s neighbor, "Do listen! The Skratdjs are at it again!”
unmarried friends thought a terrible abyss of tyranny and aggravation must lie beneath
it all, and blessed their stars that they were still single and able to tell a
tale their own way. The married ones had more idea of how it really was, and
wished in the name of common sense and good taste that Skratdj and his wife
would not make fools of themselves. So it went on, however; and so, I suppose,
it goes on still, for not many bad habits are cured in middle age.
On certain questions of comparative speaking their views
were never identical. Such as the temperature being hot or cold, things being
light or dark, the apple-tarts being sweet or sour. So one day Mr. Skratdj came
into the room, rubbing his hands, and planting himself at the fire with ”Bitterly
cold it is to-day, to be sure."
"Why, my dear William," said Mrs. Skratdj,
"I'm sure you must have got a cold; I feel a fire quite oppressive
”You were wishing you’d a seal-skin jacket yesterday, when
it wasn’t half as cold as it is to-day,” said Mr. Skratdj.
”My dear William! Why, the children were shivering the whole
day, and the wind was in the north.”
”Due east, Mrs. Skratdj."
”I know by the smoke,” said Mrs. Skratdj, softly, but
”I fancy I can tell an east wind when I feel it," said
Mr. Skratdj, jocosely, to the company.
"I told Jemima to look at the weathercock,” murmured
”I don’t care a fig for Jemima,” said her husband.
On another occasion Mrs. Skratdj and a lady friend were
conversing. . . ”We met him at the Smith’s—a gentlemanlike agreeable man, about
forty," said Mrs. Skratdj, in reference to some matter interesting to both
”Not a day over thirty-five,” said Mr. Skratdj, from behind
”Why, my dear William, his hair’s grey,” said Mrs. Skratdj.
"Plenty of men are grey at thirty,” said Mr. Skratdj.
"I knew a man who was grey at twenty-five.”
”Well, forty or thirty-five, it doesn't much matter,” said
Mrs. Skratdj, about to resume her narration.
"Five years matters a good deal to most people at
thirty-five,” said Mr. Skratdj, as he walked towards the door. "They would
make a remarkable difference to me, I know; ” and with a jocular air Mr.
Skratdj departed, and Mrs. Skratdj had the rest of the anecdote her own way.
The Spirit of Contradiction finds a place in most nurseries,
though to a very varying degree in different ones. Children snap and snarl by
nature, like young puppies; and most of us can remember taking part in some such
spirited dialogues as the following:
”I’ll tell Mamma.”
"I don’t care if
It is the part of wise parents to repress these squibs and
crackers of juvenile contention, and to enforce that slowly-learned lesson,
that in this world one must often ”pass over” and ”put up with” things in other
people, being oneself by no means perfect. Also that it is a kindness, and almost
a duty, to let people think and say and do things in their own way
But even if Mr. and Mrs. Skratdj had ever thought of
teaching all this to their children, it must be confessed that the lesson would
not have come with a good grace from either of them, since they snapped and
snarled between themselves as much or more than their children in the nursery. The
two elders were the leaders in the nursery squabbles. Between these, a boy and a
girl, a ceaseless war of words was waged from morning to night. And as neither
of them lacked ready wit, and both were in constant practice, the art of snapping
was cultivated by them to the highest pitch.
It began at breakfast, if not sooner.
"You’ve taken my chair.”
”It’s not your chair.”
”You know it’s the one I like, and it was in my place.”
”How do you know it was in your place?"
"Never mind, I do know.”
”No, you don’t.”
"Yes, I do.”
"Suppose I say it was in my place.”
"You can't, for it wasn't.”
”I can, if I like.”
"Well, was it?”
”I shan’t tell you.”
"Ah! That shows it wasn't.”
”No, it doesn't.”
"Yes, it does.”
Etc., etc., etc.
The direction of their daily walks was a fruitful subject of
difference of opinion.
”Let’s go on the Common to-day, Nurse.”
”Oh, don’t let’s go there; we’re always going on the
"I'm sure we're not. We’ve not been there for ever so
"Oh, what a story! We were there on Wednesday. Let's go
down Gipsey Lane. We never go down Gipsey Lane.”
"Why, we're always going down Gipsey Lane. And there’s
nothing to see there.”
”I don’t care. I won’t go on the Common, and I shall go and
get Papa to say we're to go down Gipsey Lane. I can run faster than you.”
”That’s very sneaking; but I don’t care.”
"Papa! Papa! Polly’s called me a sneak.”
”No, I didn’t, Papa.”
”No, I didn’t. I only said it was sneaking of you to say
you'd run faster than me, and get Papa to say we were to go down Gipsey Lane.”
"Then you did call him sneaking,” said Mr. Skratdj.
"And you're a very naughty, ill-mannered little girl. You're getting very
troublesome, Polly, and I shall have to send you to school, where you’ll be
kept in order. Go where your brother wishes at once.”
For Polly and her brother had reached an age when it was
convenient, if possible, to throw the blame of all nursery differences on
Polly. In families where domestic discipline is rather fractious than firm,
there comes a stage when the girls almost invariably go to the
wall, because they will stand snubbing, and the boys will not. Domestic
authority, like some other powers, is apt to be magnified on the weaker class. But
Mr. Skratdj would not always listen even to Harry.
"If you don’t give it me back directly, I'll tell about
your eating the two magnum-bonums in the kitchen garden on Sunday,” said Master
Harry, on one occasion.
”Tell-tale tit! Your tongue shall be slit, And every dog in
the town shall have a little bit,” quoted his sister.
"Ah! You've called me a tell-tale. Now I'll go and tell
Papa. You got into a fine scrape for calling me names the other day.”
"Go, then! I don't care."
"You wouldn't like me to go, I know.”
"You daren’t. That's what it is."
"Then why don't you?"
"Oh, I am going; but you'll see what will be the end of
Polly, however, had her own reasons for remaining stolid,
and Harry started. But when he reached the landing he paused. Mr. Skratdj had especially
announced that morning that he did not wish to be disturbed, and though he was
a favourite, Harry had no desire to invade the dining-room at this crisis. So
he returned to the nursery, and said, with a magnanimous air, ”I don't want to
get you into a scrape, Polly. If you'll beg my pardon I won't go."
"I'm sure I shan’t," said Polly, who was equally well
informed as to the position of affairs at head-quarters. "Go, if you
"I won't if you want me not, " said Harry, discreetly
waiving the question of apologies.
”But I’d rather you went,” said the obdurate Polly. ”You’re
always telling tales. Go and tell now, if you're not afraid.”
So Harry went. But at the bottom of the stairs he lingered
again, and was meditating how to return with most credit to his dignity, when
Polly’s face appeared through the banisters, and Polly's sharp tongue goaded
"Ah! I see you. You're stopping. You daren’t go.”
”I dare,” said Harry; and at last he went.
As he turned the handle of the door, Mr. Skratdj turned
"Please, Papa—” Harry began.
"Get away with you!” cried Mr. Skratdj. ”Didn’t I tell
you I was not to be disturbed this morning? What an extraor—”
But Harry had shut the door, and withdrawn precipitately.
Once outside, he returned to the nursery with dignified
steps, and an air of apparent satisfaction, saying:
”You’re to give me the bricks, please.”
"Who says so?”
"Why, who should say so? Where have I been, pray?”
”I don't know, and I don't care.”
”I’ve been to Papa. There!”
"Did he say I was to give up the bricks?”
”I’ve told you.”
"No, you've not.”
"I shan’t tell you anymore.”
"Then I'll go to Papa and ask.”
”Go by all means.”
"I won’t if you'll tell me truly.”
”I shan’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?”
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
"Girls ask such unreasonable things,” was Harry's
”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!"
"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
"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 quarrelling.
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
"I won't stand it.” "Pray take a chair.”
"You shall have it to-morrow." ”To-morrow never
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
SKRATDJ'S DOG AND THE HOT-TEMPERED GENTLEMAN
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 sharp 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
The moment anyone 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
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 Skratdj s 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 dozens 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 friendly 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 "shew off”
before strangers. These civil acquaintances only abuse both children and
parents behind their backs, for the very bad habits which they help to
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.”
"Your music must be very sticky, for you're always
"Hold your tongue!” said the hot-tempered gentleman.
With what he imagined to be a very waggish air, Harry put
out his tongue, and held it with his finger and thumb. It was unfortunate that
he had not time to draw it in again before the hot-tempered gentleman gave him
a stinging box on the ear, which brought his teeth rather sharply together on
the tip of his tongue, which was bitten in consequence.
"It’s no use speaking,” said the hot-tempered
gentleman, driving his hands through his hair. Children are like dogs: they are
very good judges of their real friends.
Harry did not like the hot-tempered gentleman a bit the less
because he was obliged to respect and obey him; and all the children welcomed
him boisterously when he arrived that Christmas which we have spoken of in connection
with his attack on Snap.
It was on the morning of Christmas Eve that the china punch
bowl was broken. Mr. Skratdj had a warm dispute with Mrs. Skratdj as to whether
it had been kept in a safe place; after which both had a brisk encounter with
the housemaid, who did not know how it happened; and she, flouncing down the
back passage, kicked Snap; who forthwith flew at the gardener as he was
bringing in the horse-radish for the beef; who stepping backwards trode upon
the cat; who spit and swore, and went up the pump with her tail as big as a
To avoid this domestic scene, the hot-tempered gentleman
withdrew to the breakfast-room and took up a newspaper. By-and-by, Harry and Polly
came in, and they were soon snapping comfortably over their own affairs in a
The hot-tempered gentleman's umber eyes had been looking
over the top of his newspaper at them for some time, before he called,
"Harry, my boy!”
And Harry came up to him.
”Show me your tongue, Harry,” said he.
"What for?” said Harry; "you're not a doctor.”
”Do as I tell you,” said the hot-tempered gentleman; and as
Harry saw his hand moving, he put his tongue out with all possible haste. The
hot- tempered gentleman sighed. ”Ah!” he said in depressed tones; "I
thought so!—Polly, come and let me look at yours.”
Polly, who had crept up during this process, now put out
hers. But the hot-tempered gentleman looked gloomier still, and shook his head.
"What is it?” cried both the children, "What do
you mean?” And they seized the tips of their tongues in their fingers, to feel
But the hot-tempered gentleman went slowly out of the room
without answering; passing his hands through his hair, and saying, "Ah!
Hum!” and nodding with an air of grave foreboding.
Just as he crossed the threshold, he turned back, and put
his head into the room. ”Have you ever noticed that your tongues are growing
pointed?" he asked.
”No!” cried the children with alarm. ”Are they?"
"If ever you find them becoming forked,” said the
gentleman in solemn tones, ”let me know.” with which he departed, gravely
shaking his head.
In the afternoon the children attacked him again.
”Do tell us what's the matter with our tongues.”
"You were snapping and squabbling just as usual this
morning,” said the hot-tempered gentleman.
"Well, we forgot,” said Polly. ”We don't mean anything,
you know. But never mind that now, please. Tell us about our tongues. What is
going to happen to them?”
”I’m very much afraid,” said the hot-tempered gentleman, in
solemn, measured tones, "that you are both of you—fast—going—to—the—"
"Dogs?" suggested Harry, who was learned in cant
"Dogs!" said the hot-tempered gentleman, driving
his hands through his hair. "Bless your life, no! Nothing half so
pleasant! (That is, unless all dogs were like Snap, Which mercifully they are
not.) No, my sad fear is that you are, both of you, rapidly going to the
Snap-Dragons!” And not another Word would the hot-tempered gentleman say on the