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When Polly Ann Played Santa Claus

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 moaned.

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 again.

"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.

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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, mother."

"Why, Jennie!"

"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 something—foolish."

"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 that's foolish."

"It would be if 't was nice candy, the kind we can't hope ever to buy ourselves. But it is n'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 Brackett abruptly.

"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 'em?"

"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 box.

"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 niece.

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.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1920, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.