A Reward of Merit
How Trying Not to Win a Prize Actually and Rightfully Secured It

Mary E. Wilkins, in Congregationalist.

From Cuba Patriot April 9, 1885

Abby, Aunt Abby's namesake, came home and told the news to the others. There were four of them in all, four sisters, the oldest fifteen, the youngest eleven. They were named, respectively, commencing with the oldest, Abby, Allie, Lizzy and Polly. Abby called them together, and told them: “Girls,” said she, sitting down on the music stool in the parlor, and twisting herself about airily so as to face them, holding her dainty little figure very erect, “you can't imagine what I have to tell you. O Polly, don't fidget so!”

“Do hurry and tell, Abby, and don't stop to fret!” cried Lizzy.

Abby was disposed to be rather dictatorial with her younger sisters, and they resented it at times.

“Oh, I will keep still, Abby,” cried Polly, meekly. She was a nervous little girl, and she had been twisting about with impatience.

“Well,” said Abby, importantly, “you know Aunt Abby's pink china tea-cups, how pretty we've always thought they were, and how we've teased her to let us drink tea out of them?”

“Yes, yes!” they cried, “what about them, Abby?”

“Aunt Abby says — she will give those beautiful pink china tea-cups to the one of us who — denies herself the most for the sake of the others, in a month.”

Abby said it solemnly, just the way her aunt had. Her cheeks flushed a little consciously. The other girls laughed, and looked a trifle shamefaced. They knew perfectly well their aunt's opinion that they were inclined to be selfish with each other, and that this was intended as a reformatory measure.

“We've got to begin to-morrow,” said Abby, “and mother is going to keep account.”

Allie laughed. She was a bright-looking girl, taller than Abby, though she was younger. “It won't do for you to make any fuss about lending me your Latin Grammar, now,” said she.

“That's so,” said Lizzie; “and you musn't say anything when I borrow your red necktie, Allie.”

Polly did not say a word but she laughed with the rest, and looked thoughtful and sober the minute afterward.

The next evening, they did begin the contest for Aunt Abby's pink cups, but it was not altogether the loving and good-natured contest she had meant it to be. Complications had arisen which she had not foreseen when she had propounded her laudable project.

Two or three days after the trial began, Mrs. Agnew, the girls' mother, went over to her sister's, and made a laughing complaint. “You don't know what you have done, Abby,” said she. “Where you meant to establish harmony and peace, you have introduced discord. It is dreadful what a state of things you are responsible for in my family.”

“Why, what do you mean, Sarah?”

“The girls used to complain because they had to do things for each other, now they complain because they don't. Why, I'll tell you this, for instance; Abby, this morning, it was Abby's turn to wash the dishes; but Allie offered to do them for her, and Lizzy, too. They fairly insisted on it. Finally, Abby came to me, in a pet, and said she thought she might wash her own dishes. She did not want to give her sisters credit marks, you see. And that is the way it goes. They insist on lending ribbons to each other, and then they are vexed if they are not accepted.”

“I am sorry the girls are so selfish with each other,” said Aunt Abby, thoughtfully. “I see I have not mended matters any. It is too bad to make you so much trouble.”

“It is not trouble, really. It is too comical, still I feel badly, for it shows me how innately selfish the girls are.”

“They are such sweet little girls, too,” said Aunt Abby.

“Polly does not make any fuss about this. She does not seem to care. I have wondered why, for she always appeared to be as much in love with your pink cups as the others. But she lets them wash her dishes, and she wears their ribbons; and the other day I saw her eating the biggest pear on a plate — Abby carefully picked it out and handed it to her. It was not really like Polly, either. I never thought she was as selfish as the others.”

“Oh, I have an idea!” cried Aunt Abby.

When Mrs. Agnew heard it she laughed heartily. “Your plan was a brilliant one, after all,” said she.

“Of course I am abiding by the letter of the compact,” said Aunt Abby. “The one who denies herself the most for the sake of the others has the reward; and Polly is certainly the one, so far. She is giving up her own way and her own chances.”

“Sometimes I wonder,” Mrs. Agnew said, “if Polly is not really doing this that her sisters may take the prize. Polly is so much quieter than my other girls, I never feel as if I understood her as well. But I did see the big tears standing in her eyes when she was eating that pear the other day, and I wondered then.”

“I have no doubt of it,” said Aunt Abby. She had always thought that little, nervous, shy Polly was fully as sweet as any of them.

When the month was up they all went over to Aunt Abby's one afternoon. The prize was to be awarded, and then they were to stay to supper, and the winner was to pour the tea into those beautiful pink cups herself. They all sat around in Aunt Abby's parlor, and Mrs. Agnew drew a paper out of her pocket and began to read to a solemn and anxious audience the list of credit-marks; and Polly had won the pink china cups!

There was a clamor of wonder and dissent then. They did not understand. Why, Polly had not done anything! But they understood well enough after a few words of quiet explanation from Aunt Abby. There was no gainsaying it; Polly had lawfully won the prize. The three older ones looked at each other in dismay for a minute, and they begun to laugh.

“It's a good joke on us,” said Allie, “and I do believe we deserve it and Polly is a good little thing. I'm real glad you've got them, Polly — why, Polly!”

For Polly had hidden her face in her hands and was crying as if her heart would break.

They all crowded around her, exclaiming. Aunt Abby put her face close down to hers. “Tell me what is the matter, dear,” said she.

“I — I — didn't want 'em! I — tried not to get 'em,” sobbed Polly.

Then they all tried to comfort her for getting the reward, but, in spite of them, she looked meek and rueful when she poured the tea.

It came to be a sort of a by-word in the Agnew family after that. Whenever any dispute arose among the girls, one of them was sure to say: “I guess we had better drink some tea out of Polly's pink cups.” And it acted like a talisman in restoring good nature.