Sarah Orne Jewett
She was Miss Polly Oliver, an old and dear friend of mine, who was eight years of age last March. I truly hope that you are as good-tempered and willing to help your friends as she was. But she had a bad habit of only half finishing whatever she began to do, and whether she was working or playing it was always the same, for she was apt to say, "Oh, that's well enough," or, "I'll do the rest by and by." You can have no idea what forlorn-looking creatures her dolls were, and Mrs. Elizabeth Adora, the best doll, was served no better than the others. Miss Polly began one day to make her a Turkish jacket, and she carefully basted it together, all but the right sleeve, which she did not even stop to cut out; then she began to embroider it. First she thought she would put in the yellow, but when she had gone part of the way around she thought red would be better to work with, so she tried that, and got tired of it and tried the blue silk, and it was the most ragged-looking jacket, when she left it, that ever a best doll had. Not one of the dolls ever was ready to go anywhere, and the baby-house was always in confusion. Miss Polly was of course a shocking housekeeper; and yet sometimes of a rainy morning she would begin to have a grand house-cleaning, and would put all the doll's furniture in a heap on the floor, pull all the family's winter clothes out of the little trunks and boxes, and lay out so much work for herself that it made you tired to look at it. And then, instead of putting things back in their places, she would find some plaything that had been lost for a while, and away she would go with it to the garden or to her mother's room. After that, Miss Polly would be told that she could not come down to supper while the play-room floor was in such a state, and, being hungry, she would hurry the dolls and the furniture into her apron and spill them on one of the floors of the baby-house. And the baby-house was raised on blocks three or four inches from the ground, so there was a place under it which was called the cellar, and she used to push things in there out of sight with her foot.
There was always something dreadful happening to my friend. She would come in with her face all scratched and bleeding the day before she was to give a party, and when everybody wondered how she came to have such a face, she would confess that one boot was not buttoned, and she was running and it tripped her up. And one day, I remember, she was spending the afternoon with her aunt at a most delightful place, and the young ladies were very kind to her and showed her all sorts of pretty things in the house. Afterwards they were walking down the garden to see a new summer-house, when the underskirt of Miss Polly's dress dropped to the ground, and what should she do but step on her pocket. It was too sad; she had just put into it the dearest little carved Swiss box, and it was all broken to bits. The young ladies felt very sorry for her, and Aunt Kate particularly, and Polly told them that the button of her dress had come off, and she had told Honora that she would sew it on herself. She thought it would stay; though the thread was very short she didn't stop to take another needleful and make the button fast, and so for want of a few little stitches she lost her present. Miss Polly was not an idle child at all, but always so busy that she was usually tired out when night came. The trouble was that she tried to do too many things.
One morning in the spring she went to the garden and found her mother and her Aunt Kate and the gardener all busy. The seeds were coming up, and the plants which had been set out were budding and growing as fast as they could. And so were the weeds, too, for that matter. Miss Polly walked about the paths, pulling a party of her dolls in their carriage, when suddenly she stopped and seemed to be interested in some of the plants; then she ran as fast as she could to her mother, the carriage bumping and jolting, so that one doll fell out by the way.
"Oh, Mother! there's such a dear little flower-bed up here, just large enough for me. I wish I could have it for my own, this summer. I really will weed it, and take as good care of it as any one could."
Mrs. Oliver laid down the trowel she was using, looked up, and laughed. "Do you really think you would say yes, if you were I. How shall I like by and by to hear people say, 'I wonder why that flower-bed is so neglected, and why the weeds are left to grow so tall around that very fine geranium?' They will think that Thomas or somebody else is very careless."
"Oh no," says the little girl pleadingly, "they will wonder why that place is so much nicer than the others."
"I have heard such promises a great many times before. But you may try once more, and I shall be so glad if you take good care of it. And I shall tell every one that it is your garden, whether it looks well or is covered with weeds; so it is for you to say whether they shall call you a careful, orderly, and faithful Miss Polly, or a careless, untidy little girl. There is really no reason in the world why you shouldn't have the prettiest border in the garden. Thomas can give you whatever you wish to plant."
The dolls were left in the hot sun until they were nearly baked to death, and their clothes and faces were faded. And the one who had fallen out of the carriage was terribly frightened by the bugs that wandered over her. She was lying with her dear face just over an ant-hill, but Miss Polly forgot all her dolls and hurried away to her flower-bed.
There was not much to do, for Thomas had been at work there only a day or two before. She pulled up a few stray little weeds and smoothed the earth, and then thought she would set out some blue violets. So she shouldered her little spade and went off to a distant part of the lawn where the ground was damp and the violets grew, and that was the last seen of her that morning. Mrs. Oliver wondered where she was, as she was going into the house later, and as she passed Miss Polly's garden, she saw there were no weeds and was glad. As for the two deep holes made for the violets, she thought the dog had made them, and stopped to fill them up carefully. The flower-bed was not touched again until one day Mr. Oliver said at breakfast, --
"I saw last night that one of the beds in the garden seemed to have nothing in it but weeds. Why doesn't Thomas look after it? It looks very badly."
Mrs. Oliver smiled, and Polly said, "Oh, papa, it wasn't Thomas's fault. That is my garden, and I meant to take all the care of it."
When she had finished breakfast Polly rushed to find her hat, and soon had dozens of great weeds pulled up from her garden, and sunning their roots on the gravel walk. She worked as hard as any child could, and was just wishing that she had remembered to pull them up a few at a time instead of having all to do at once, when she looked up and saw her mother coming out to speak to her.
"Well, Miss Polly," said she, "I was right about the flower-bed, after all. Yes, I know you are sorry. It is too hot for you to stay here any longer; suppose we go into the house and talk a little while."
It was really very hot, and Miss Polly was ready to leave the weeds until evening, so they went into the library where it was cool and Aunt Kate was reading. Mrs. Oliver took a book from the table and then she laid it down again. "Polly, dear," said she, "I believe I will give you a long lecture. I am growing unhappy because you are so careless. I don't see what we are to do. Can't you think of some way to help it, yourself? And Polly smiled and said she was sorry, and she meant to be good after that; but when she was doing anything she always wanted to do something else.
Mrs. Oliver couldn't help laughing a little at this, but she said gravely that some grown people felt so about their work, and they were not very nice people; they did not get on well at all. "Do you know," said she, "that you are learning just now either to do things right or to do them wrong? Would you like, if you were grown up and had a house of your own, to have it look as your baby-house does? Your playthings are always being lost, and your dolls have to wear each other's clothes, and everything is in confusion. Just think how silly it would seem if Aunt Kate and I never finished anything we began: if Aunt Kate sewed with big stitches, and just made her work hang together, and said, 'Oh, that's well enough!' or if she half-painted her pictures and half-learned her songs, or if she left her gloves and ribbons and jewelry on the floor, and pushed them under the bureau with her foot: wasn't that what happened to your doll's hat and some other things yesterday afternoon? You think I am foolish to say such things, and that of course you will take better care of everything when you are older, and that it makes no difference how you serve the dollies. But that is all a mistake. Do you think you will wake up some morning and find yourself careful and orderly? No indeed! you must learn to be a little better every day; you are better or worse every night than you were in the morning, and I know you don't mean to keep on growing worse. You must try every day to put things in their places, and to remember that one thing all done is better than ten things half-done.
"It is like fighting a battle; you can't give the army one blow and kill it; you must fight all the soldiers one by one, and this enemy sends his soldiers one at a time. If you conquer them as fast as you can while you are a little girl, these wicked little temptations, that make you say, 'Oh, that's well enough,' or 'By and by will do just as well,' won't come to trouble you after you are grown up. If you try to do everything as well as you can now, by and by you will find that you have learned how, and that you cannot get your lessons, or weed your garden, or sew, or do anything in any way but the right way. You think it doesn't make any difference if a little girl is careless; but it will be very bad for herself and for other people if she grows to be a careless woman, and nobody can believe her promises, - a woman who never finishes what she begins, and is never well dressed, and has only half good manners, only half-learned her lessons at school, and half-read her books. I think nobody would wish to have much to do with her: don't you?"
"Why mamma!" said Miss Polly, very much surprised, "I forgot that I shall be the same kind of a grown-up girl that I am a little girl. And I'm not going to spoil myself; I am going to begin this very minute to be better."
"Don't forget that the little soldiers come only one at a time," said Aunt Kate, and Polly stopped to give her a kiss, though she was just then in a great hurry. She was very fond of her young aunty, and wished in her heart of hearts to be exactly like her. "'Everything that is worth doing at all is worth doing well,'" said Aunt Kate, and she kissed Polly twice. "I shall give you some more good proverbs next time I see you," and Polly ran laughing up-stairs to her play-room, and soon had the doll's parlor in perfect order. When she was poking her hidden treasures out from the cellar of the baby-house with Honora's yardstick, she found two little dolls whom she was devotedly fond of and had not seen for a week, but she hardly gave them a second look. I think she would have finished putting the whole house to rights, but after a while she found herself growing very sleepy. It seemed a very long morning although she had been so busy. So she laid herself down on the play-room sofa with the two china dolls in her hand and was asleep in a few minutes.
My friend, Miss Polly, was a most remarkable dreamer, and the family were usually diverted at breakfast with the astonishing adventures she had met with during the night. Her dolls were as quiet as anybody's all day, but at night she insisted that they talked and behaved strangely. "Don't you think I ought to give Edward Alabama away?" she asked one morning sorrowfully. "I dreamed that he swore at my new little doll in the yellow dress, just like the boys in the street, and he has always been so good until now."
This time she dreamed that her best doll, Mrs. Elizabeth Adora, called to her from the baby-house guest chamber, "Are you sound asleep, Miss Half-done Polly?"
"Yes, dear," said the young lady.
"I should like to be taken to walk before dinner."
So Polly took her in her arms, noticing with shame the one-sleeved Turkish jacket embroidered half way round, and the stockings that were no relation to each other; the boot on one foot and the slipper on the other, and the petticoat and overskirt which did not belong together. She offered to stop and put on the doll's best dress, but Mrs. Elizabeth said she was in a hurry. They went down the avenue, and just before they reached the gate Miss Polly heard a noise by a tall larch-tree, and went to see what the matter was. Two robins were flying about in great distress, while three young ones lay upon the ground with their necks broken. She looked at the nest, or what was left of it. "Why, what a silly house you had! I could build a better one myself; any one might know it would come to pieces. It's only half-built, you foolish birds."
"You needn't say anything Miss!" said the birds. "You do everything so well yourself, you know." And the doll smiled, and Miss Polly walked in as dignified fashion as possible out of the gate and down the street. A little way ahead she saw some boys standing around a cart that was all broken up. They looked very odd; their faces were dirty, and their clothes half-buttoned, and some had no jackets and some had no shoes. They were usually very neat boys.
"'What is the matter?'" said one. "The man only half-harnessed his horse and the cart ran against its heels and frightened it so it ran away. He is nearly killed they say."
Soon they came to a house where Miss Polly often went, and the best doll said she wished to go in to call, but they found everything in a sad condition. There was no one in the parlor, which some one had begun to sweep, and then had gone off and left it all dusty; and the vases and books and ornaments were all in confusion on the tables and chairs.
"I heard last night that the Hallets were going to send away one of their servants. It must be the one who takes care of the parlors; she must be lazy, for it is nearly dinner-time."
"When I went to bed last night," said the best doll, "the furniture of my whole house was in a heap together, and the kitten slept upon my best dress."
"Nobody spoke to you," said Miss Polly, and she hurried across the hall and found the family in the dining-room at breakfast. They were only half-awake, and did not seem so glad to see their guests as usual, but one of the older children pushed up a chair and she sat down. "It is almost dinner-time." said she; "didn't you know it?"
"Who cares!" said Mrs. Hallet, who had always been so perfectly polite before, and Miss Polly did not answer, but tried to eat one thing after another from the plateful they gave her, and nothing was good. "I believe that breakfast was only half-cooked," said she, as she ran out, feeling very hungry and miserable. She found a lonely cent in her pocket and went into a shop for a stick of candy, but the woman only gave her half a one.
"It was a whole cent," said Polly to herself, sorrowfully, as she came away. "You old doll, I am having a horrid walk with you, and I never shall go again. I am not going another step."
"What is the use?" asked Mrs. Elizabeth Adora, in the most provoking way. "You know that you might as well go on as go back. You could only get half-way home."
"I have a great mind to throw you into the river," said Miss Polly, much frightened and very angry.
"But you know I should only half-drown," said the best doll. Miss Polly said to herself that even that would be better than nothing, and walked on.
Saddest of all, she now began to have the toothache, and her feelings were too much for her. Her feet went slower and slower, and at last she had to sit down beside the road and hold her face with both hands. She saw a man coming toward her who proved to be Dr. Smith, the dentist. He was a very pleasant man, and he asked what the matter was, and looked at the little tooth and said: "Ho! that bit of a thing? I have some pincers in my pocket, and I'll take care of it in a minute." Poor Polly opened her mouth and the doctor began to pull slowly and very hard. "There, dear," said he, "don't scream any more; it's all right;" but Polly felt it with her tongue. "Oh, dear!" said she, "it isn't out, and it aches worse. Do pull it all out." But the doctor answered, as he walked away, "That's the way we pull them now."
It was lucky that Miss Polly Oliver was only dreaming, for she forgot this trouble immediately. And next she looked in at the door of a school-house, and saw the boys go to the blackboard and do half their sums, and sit down again, and the little girls knew half their arithmetic tables and the first half of the long geography words. "I don't think this is so bad," she thought, and then she wondered if by and by they wouldn't wish they knew the whole of those lessons.
"Is the world always going to be like this, Mrs. Elizabeth? I wish you would tell me what is the matter with everybody to-day."
"I should think it was very easy to see. If you do not like having halves of things for an hour, how do you suppose we dolls like it all the time?"
"Dear," said Miss Polly, "I have a lovely piece of blue silk at home, and some yellow lace. I have been thinking for ever so long that I would ask Honora to make you such a pretty dress."
"Oh yes," said the best doll, "you are very kind, but I have no idea of going home yet. I know where some boys are going to half-drown a few very nice Maltese kittens this afternoon, and I should like to be there. It is such fun, you know, to see them thrown in, and swim back to land and splutter and then have to go in again."
"Oh, dear me!" cried Miss Polly, "I should just die. Oh, please don't go to see that. I love kittens so dearly, and I will always do the whole of everything, if you will only let me go home."
"Wake up, Miss Polly, it's almost dinner-time," said somebody, and she felt as if it were the first kind voice she had heard for a year.
"Oh, aunty!" said she, "I'm not going to be Half-done Polly another day. I'm going to have things all done. I have had the most dreadful time."
"Tell me about it," said Aunt Kate with a smile, while Polly lingered for a minute at the dolls' house to give Mrs. Elizabeth Adora a sound whipping, but she looked so good-natured and so pretty, and the Turkish jacket was so mortifying, that she changed her mind. The first thing she found to do was to eat her dinner, and every bit of that disappeared, but whether it was because she was hungry, or on account of her talk with her mother, and the dream, I do not attempt to say.
But a good many weeks have gone by and Miss Polly is growing to be a careful girl, and by the way she keeps on trying I think she means and is sure to be better still. We are none of us so good that it will harm us to be better, and so let us remember every day, as she does, the wicked little soldiers that come one by one, and that if we are learning as fast as we can to do everything right, by and by we cannot do our work any other way.
"Half-Done Polly" first appeared in The Independent (23:5) on 5 October 1871 and was collected in Play Days from which this text is taken. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.