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The Great Idea and What Came of It
Margaret Brackett turned her head petulantly from side to side on the
pillow. "I'm sure I don't see why this had to come to me now," she
Polly Ann Brackett, who had been hastily summoned to care for her
stricken relative, patted the pillow hopefully.
"Sho! now, Aunt Margaret, don't take on so. Just lie still and rest.
You 're all beat out. That's what's the matter."
The sick woman gave an impatient sigh.
"But, Polly Ann, it's only the 22d. I ought not to be that--yet! It
never comes until the 26th, and I 'm prepared for it then. Sarah Bird
comes Christmas Day, you know."
Polly Ann's jaw dropped. Her eyes stared frankly.
"Sarah Bird!" she cried. "You don't mean you engaged her beforehand--a
_nurse_! That you knew you 'd need her!"
"Of course. I do every year. Polly Ann, don't stare so! As if
Christmas did n't use every one up--what with the shopping and all the
planning and care it takes!"
"But I thought Christmas was a--a pleasure," argued Polly Ann feebly;
"something to enjoy. Not to--to get sick over."
"Enjoy--yes, though not to be taken lightly, understand," returned the
elder woman with dignity. "It is no light thing to select and buy
suitable, appropriate gifts. And now, with half of them to be yet tied
up and labeled, here I am, flat on my back," she finished with a groan.
"Can't I do it? Of course I can!" cried Polly Ann confidently.
The sick woman turned with troubled eyes.
"Why, I suppose you'll have to do it," she sighed, "as long as I can't.
Part of them are done up, anyway; but there's John's family and Mary
and the children left. John's are in the middle drawer of the bureau
in the attic hall, and Mary's are in the big box near it. You'll know
them right away when you see them. There's paper and strings and
ribbons, and cards for the names, besides the big boxes to send them
in. Seems as if you ought to do it right, only--well, you know how
utterly irresponsible and absent-minded you are sometimes."
"Nonsense!" scoffed Polly Ann. "As if I could n't do up a parcel of
presents as well as you! And I'll prove it, too. I'll go right up
now," she declared, rising to her feet and marching out of the room.
In the attic hall Polly Ann found the presents easily. She knew which
was for which, too; she knew Margaret and her presents of old. She did
not need the little bits of paper marked, "For Mary," "For Tom," "For
John," "For Julia," to tell her that the woolen gloves and thick socks
went into Mary's box, and the handsomely bound books and the fine
lace-edged handkerchief into John's.
Mary, as all the Bracketts knew, was the poor relation that had married
shiftless Joe Hemenway, who had died after a time, leaving behind him a
little Joe and three younger girls and a boy. John, if possible even
better known to the Brackett family, was the millionaire Congressman to
whom no Brackett ever failed to claim relationship with a proudly
careless "He's a cousin of ours, you know, Congressman Brackett is."
At once Polly Ann began her task. And then--
It was the French doll that did it. Polly Ann was sure of that, as she
thought it over afterward. From the middle drawer where were John's
presents the doll fell somehow into the box where were Mary's. There
the fluffy gold of the doll's hair rioted gloriously across a pair of
black woolen socks, and the blue satin of its gown swept glistening
folds of sumptuousness across a red flannel petticoat. One rose-tipped
waxen hand, outflung, pointed, almost as if in scorn, to the corner of
the box where lay another doll, a doll in a brown delaine dress, a doll
whose every line from her worsted-capped head to her black-painted feet
spelled durability and lack of charm.
Polly Ann saw this, and sighed. She was thinking of Mary's little
crippled Nellie for whom the brown delaine doll was designed; and she
was remembering what that same Nellie had said one day, when they had
paused before a window wherein stood another just such a little
satin-clad lady as this interloper from the middle bureau drawer.
"Oh, Cousin Polly, look--look!" Nellie had breathed. "Is n't she
be-yu-tiful? Oh, Cousin Polly, if--if I had--one--like that, I don't
think I 'd mind even _these_--much," she choked, patting the crutches
that supported her.
Polly Ann had sighed then, and had almost sobbed aloud as she
disdainfully eyed her own thin little purse, whose contents would
scarcely have bought the gown that Miss Dolly wore. She sighed again
now, as she picked up the doll before her, and gently smoothed into
order the shining hair. If only this were for Nellie!--but it was n't.
It was for Julia's Roselle, Roselle who already possessed a dozen
French dolls, and would probably possess as many more before her doll
days were over, while Nellie--
With a swift movement Polly Ann dropped the doll back into the box, and
picked up the other one. The next moment the brown delaine dress was
rubbing elbows with a richly bound book and a Duchesse lace collar in
the middle bureau drawer. Polly Ann cocked her head to one side and
debated; did she dare ask Aunt Margaret to make the change?
With a slow shake of her head she owned that she did not. She knew her
aunt and her aunt's convictions as to the ethics of present-giving too
well. And, if she were tempted to doubt, there were the two sets of
presents before her, both of which, even down to the hemp twine and
brown paper in one and the red ribbons and white tissue-paper in the
other, proclaimed their donor's belief as to the proper distribution of
usefulness and beauty.
The two dolls did look odd in their present environment. Polly Ann
admitted that. Reluctantly she picked them up, and was about to return
each to her own place, when suddenly the Great Idea was born.
With a little cry and a tense biting of her lip Polly Ann fell back
before it. Then excitedly she leaned forward, and examined with
searching eyes the presents. She drew a long breath, and stood erect
"Well, why not?" she asked herself. Aunt Margaret had said she was
utterly irresponsible and absent-minded. Very well, then; she would be
utterly irresponsible and absent-minded. She would change the labels
and misdirect the boxes. John's should go to Mary, and Mary's to John.
Nellie should have that doll. Incidentally Nellie's mother and sisters
and brother and grandmother should have, too, for once in their starved
lives, a Christmas present that did not shriek durability the moment
the wrappings fell away.
It was nothing but fun for Polly Ann after this. With unafraid hands
she arranged the two sets of presents on the top of the bureau, and
planned their disposal. Mentally she reviewed the two families. In
Mary's home there were Mary herself; Joe, eighteen; Jennie, sixteen;
Carrie, fourteen; Tom, eleven; and Nellie, six; besides Grandma. In
John's there were John, his wife, Julia; their son Paul, ten; and
daughter Roselle, four; besides John's younger sister Barbara,
eighteen, and his mother.
It took a little planning to make the presents for six on the one hand
do for seven on the other, and vice versa; but with a little skillful
dividing and combining it was done at last to Polly Ann's huge
satisfaction. Then came the tying-up and the labeling. And here again
Polly Ann's absent-mindedness got in its fine work; for the red ribbons
and the white tissue-paper went into Mary's box, which left, of course,
only the brown paper and hemp twine for John's.
"There!" sighed Polly Ann when the boxes themselves were at last tied
up and addressed. "Now we 'll see what we shall see!" But even Polly
Ann, in spite of her bravely upheld chin, trembled a little as she
turned toward the room where Margaret Brackett lay sick.
It was a pity, as matters were, that Polly Ann could not have been a
fly on the wall of Mary's sitting-room at that moment, for Mary's
Jennie was saying gloomily, "I suppose, mother, we'll have Cousin
Margaret's Christmas box as usual."
"I suppose so," her mother answered. Then with a determined
cheerfulness came the assertion, "Cousin Margaret is always very kind
and thoughtful, you know, Jennie."
There was a pause, broken at last by a mutinous "I don't think so,
"Well, I don't. She may be kind, but she isn't--thoughtful."
"Why, my daughter!" remonstrated the shocked mother again. "I 'm
ashamed of you!"
"I know; it's awful, of course, but I can't help it," declared the
girl. "If she really were thoughtful, she 'd think sometimes that we
'd like something for presents besides flannel things."
"But they're so--sensible, Jennie, for--us."
"That's just what they are--sensible," retorted the girl bitterly.
"But who wants sensible things always? We _have_ to have them the
whole year through. Seems as if at Christmas we might have
"Jennie, Jennie, what are you saying? and when Cousin Margaret is so
good to us, too! Besides, she does send us candy always, and--and
"It would be if 't was nice candy, the kind we can't hope ever to buy
ourselves. But it isn't. It's the cheap Christmas candy, two pounds
for a quarter, the kind we have to buy when we buy any. Mother, it's
just that; don't you see? Cousin Margaret thinks that's the only sort
of thing that's fit for us! cheap, sensible things, the kind of things
we have to buy. But that does n't mean that we would n't like
something else, or that we have n't any taste, just because we have n't
the means to gratify it," finished the girl chokingly as she hurried
out of the room before her mother could reply.
All this, however, Polly Ann did not hear, for Polly Ann was not a fly
on Mary's sitting-room wall.
On Christmas Day Sarah Bird appeared, cheerfully ready to take charge
of her yearly patient; and Polly Ann went home. In less than a week,
however, Polly Ann was peremptorily sent for by the sick woman. Polly
Ann had expected the summons and was prepared; yet she shook in her
shoes when she met her kinswoman's wrathful eyes.
"Polly Ann, _what_ did you do with those presents?" demanded Margaret
"P-presents?" Polly Ann tried to steady her voice.
"Yes, yes, the ones for Mary and John's family."
"Why, I did them up and sent them off, to be sure. Did n't they get
"Get them!" groaned Margaret Brackett, "get them! Polly Ann, what did
you do? You must have mixed them awfully somehow!"
"Mixed them?" In spite of her preparation for this very accusation
Polly Ann was fencing for time.
"Yes, mixed them. Look at that--and that--and that," cried the irate
woman, thrusting under Polly Ann's nose one after another of the notes
of thanks she had received the day before.
They were from John and his family, and one by one Polly Ann picked
them up and read them.
John, who had not for years, probably, worn anything coarser than silk
on his feet, expressed in a few stiff words his thanks for two pairs of
black woolen socks. Julia, famed for the dainty slenderness of her
hands, expressed in even stiffer language her thanks for a pair of gray
woolen gloves. She also begged to thank Cousin Margaret for the doll
so kindly sent Roselle and for the red mittens sent to Paul. John's
mother, always in the minds of those who knew her associated with
perfumed silks and laces, wrote a chilly little note of thanks for a
red flannel petticoat; while John's sister, Barbara, worth a million in
her own right, scrawled on gold-monogrammed paper her thanks for the
dozen handkerchiefs that had been so kindly sent her in the Christmas
"And there were n't a dozen handkerchiefs, I tell you," groaned
Margaret, "except the cotton ones I sent to Mary's two girls, Jennie
and Carrie, six to each. Think of it--cotton handkerchiefs to Barbara
Marsh! And that red flannel petticoat, and those ridiculous gloves and
socks! Oh, Polly Ann, Polly Ann, how could you have done such a thing,
and got everything so hopelessly mixed? There was n't a thing, not a
single thing right but that doll for Roselle."
Polly Ann lifted her head suddenly.
"Have you heard from--Mary?" she asked in a faint voice.
"Not yet. But I shall, of course. I suppose _they_ got John's things.
Imagine it! Mary Hemenway and a Duchesse lace collar!"
"Oh, but Mary would like that," interposed Polly Ann feverishly. "You
know she's invited out a good deal in a quiet way, and a bit of nice
lace does dress up a plain frock wonderfully."
"Nonsense! As if she knew or cared whether it was Duchesse or--or
imitation Val! She 's not used to such things, Polly Ann. She would
n't know what to do with them if she had them. While John and
Julia--dear, dear, what shall I do? Think of it--a red flannel
petticoat to Madam Marsh!"
Polly Ann laughed. A sudden vision had come to her of Madam Marsh as
she had seen her last at a family wedding clad in white lace and
amethysts, and with an amethyst tiara in her beautifully dressed hair.
Margaret Brackett frowned.
"It's no laughing matter, Polly Ann," she said severely. "I shall
write to both families and explain, of course. In fact, I have done
that already to John and Julia. But nothing, nothing can take away my
mortification that such a thing should have occurred at all. And when
I took so much pains in selecting those presents, to get suitable ones
for both boxes. I can't forgive you, Polly Ann; I just can't. And,
what's more, I don't see how in the world you did it. I am positive
that I had each thing marked carefully, and--"
She did not finish her sentence. Sarah Bird brought in a letter, and
with a petulant exclamation Margaret Brackett tore it open.
"It's from Mary," she cried as soon as Sarah Bird had left the room;
"and--goodness, look at the length of it! Here, you read it, Polly
Ann. It's lighter by the window." And she passed the letter to her
_Dear Cousin Margaret_ [read Polly Ann aloud]: I wonder if I can
possibly tell you what that Christmas box was to us. I 'm going to
try, anyway; but I don't believe, even then, that you'll quite
understand it, for you never were just as we are, and you'd have to be
to know what that box was to us.
You see we can't buy nice things, really nice things, ever. There are
always so many "have-to-gets" that there is never anything left for the
"want-to-gets"; and so we had to do without--till your box came. And
then--but just let me tell you what did happen when it did come.
The expressman brought it Christmas Eve, and Joe opened it at once.
Mother and I and all the children stood around watching him. You
should have heard the "Ohs!" and "Ahs!" of delight when the pretty
white packages all tied with red ribbons were brought to light. By the
way, Nellie has captured all those red ribbons, and her entire family
of dolls is rejoicing in a Merry Christmas of their own in consequence.
As for the presents themselves--I don't know where to begin or how to
say it; but I'll begin with myself, and try to make you understand.
That beautiful Duchesse lace collar! I love it already, and I'm
actually vain as a peacock over it. I had made over mother's black
silk for myself this fall, and I did so want some nice lace for it!
You've no idea how beautiful, really beautiful, the dress looks with
that collar. I shan't cry now when I'm invited anywhere. It's a pity,
and I'm ashamed that it is so; but clothes do make such a difference.
Mother is fairly reveling in that lovely silk and lace workbag. She
has carried it with her all day all over the house, just to look at it,
she says. She has always wanted some such thing, but never thought she
ought to take the money to buy one. She and two or three other old
ladies in the neighborhood have a way of exchanging afternoon visits
with their work; and mother is as pleased as a child now, and is
impatiently awaiting the next "meet" so she can show off her new
treasure. Yet, to see her with it, one would think she had always
carried silk workbags, scented with lavender.
Joe is more than delighted with his handsome set of books. And really
they do lighten our dull sitting-room wonderfully, and we are all proud
of them. He is planning to read them aloud to us all this winter, and
I am so glad. I am particularly glad, for we not only shall have the
pleasure of hearing the stories themselves, but I shall have the
satisfaction of knowing where my boy is evenings. Joe is a good lad
always, but he has been worrying me a little lately, for he seemed to
like to be away so much. Yet I could n't wonder, for I had so little
to offer him at home for entertainment. Now I have these books.
Carrie is wild over her necklace of pretty stones. She says they're
"all the rage" at school among the girls, and the very latest thing
out. Dear child! she does so love pretty things, and of course I can't
give them to her. It is the same with Jennie, and she is equally
pleased with that dainty lace-edged handkerchief. It is such a nice
handkerchief, and Jennie, like her mother, does so love nice things!
Tom was almost speechless with joy when he discovered that sumptuous
knife. But he has n't been speechless since--not a bit of it! There
is n't any one anywhere within the radius of a mile, I guess, to whom
he has n't shown every blade and corkscrew and I don't-know-what-all
that that wonderful knife can unfold.
I've left Nellie till the last, but not because she is the least. Poor
dear little girlie! My heart aches now that I realize how she has
longed for a beautiful doll, one that could open and shut its eyes, say
"Papa" and "Mamma," and one that was daintily dressed. I had no idea
the little thing would be so overcome. She turned white, then red, and
actually sobbed with joy when the doll was put into her arms, though
since then she has been singing all over the house, and has seemed so
happy. I 'm sure you will believe this when I tell you that I
overheard her last night whisper into dolly's ear that now she did n't
mind half so much not being like other girls who could run and play,
because she had her to love and care for.
And then the candy that was marked for all of us--and such candy! All
their lives the children have longingly gazed at such candy through
store windows, and dreamed what it might taste like; but to have it
right in their hands--in their mouths! You should have heard their
rapturous sighs of content as it disappeared.
And now, dear Cousin Margaret, can you see a little what that Christmas
box has been to us? I can't bear to say, "Thank you"; it seems so
commonplace and inadequate. And yet there is n't anything else I can
say. And we do thank you, each and every one of us. We thank you both
for our own gift, and for all the others, for each one's gift is making
all the others happy. Do you see? Oh, I hope you do see and that you
do understand that we appreciate all the care and pains you must have
taken to select just the present that each of us most longed for.
Lovingly and gratefully yours,
Polly Ann's voice quivered into silence. It had already broken once or
twice, and it was very husky toward the last. For a moment no one
spoke; then with an evident attempt at carelessness Margaret said: "I
guess, Polly Ann, I won't write to Mary at all that there was any
mistake. We 'll let it--pass."
There was no answer. Twice Polly Ann opened her lips, but no sound
came. After a moment she got to her feet, and walked slowly across the
room. At the door she turned abruptly.
"Aunt Margaret," she panted, "I suppose I ought to tell you. There
wa'n't any--mistake. I--I changed those presents on purpose." Then
she went out quickly and shut the door.
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