An Arrow In A Sunbeam by Sarah Orne Jewett

Story type: Literature

The minister of a fashionable church had noticed Sunday after Sunday a little old lady with a sad, patient face, dressed in very shabby mourning, sitting in the strangers’ pew.

Like Job this good man could say, “The cause that I knew not, I sought out.” He soon learned from the sexton her name and residence, and was surprised to find her in the very topmost room of a house, amid evidences of real poverty.

In the one little window bloomed a monthly rose and a vigorous heliotrope, and beside the pots lay half-a-dozen books, such as are rarely seen in the homes of the very poor. On the wall hung two fine engravings, and an old fashioned gold watch was suspended from a faded velvet case over the mantel piece.

Her story, when she was induced to tell it, was neither new nor startling. She had long been a widow. Her children had been called from her, till now she had but one, and he, being a cripple, could do little more than supply his own absolute wants by his work as a repairer of watches.

The pastor was charmed with her patient endurance of what others would call the hard discipline of life, and when he left her he felt that he had been a learner instead of a teacher in that poor room.

Being too delicate to allude to her apparent poverty, he said at parting, “As you are a stranger among us, I will send some of the visitors of the church to cheer and comfort you.”

He selected two bright, rosy girls, full of life and happiness, of whose visits among the poor he had often heard.

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They came to the widow like sunbeams through a storm. They talked cheerily, and did not appear to notice the bareness of the room. They asked something of her history, and told of their grandmothers, who also had seen much sorrow; and in this way drew her out till she told of her former competency, of her early advantages in England, and of all the misfortunes which had brought her to her present position. “And yet,” she said, “I have little to complain of while I have the love and tender care of such a son as Walter.”

Little by little, without a complaint from her, they found that the old lady lacked many things for her comfort. Their sympathies were aroused. It would be a delight to make her happy by gifts that would be of service to her.

Lucy Grey, a girl full of fun as well as of kindness, said, “I wish you would let me make you a bonnet; I make lovely ones. Grandma won’t wear a milliner’s bonnet, she likes mine so much better.”

Grace Wheeler volunteered to make a dress and caps, adding, playfully, “As my dear grandma is gone, you must let me adopt you and do all I can for you. There are four of us girls always looking round for somebody to help. You can call on us for anything you want.”

Four young girls, who laughingly styled themselves “The Quartette of Mercy,” met at Grace Wheeler’s house with materials for a dress, and a bonnet and caps. The old lady was coming two hours afterward to be fitted, having being measured before they left her house.

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The girls were in a perfect gala of joy that bright afternoon. They chatted merrily while working, and one would have thought they were making costumes for comic tableaux rather than the garb of a sorrowful widow.

“I’ll tell you, girls,” said Lucy Grey, “the old dowager will shine when she gets my bonnet on!” and trying it on over her chestnut curls, she added, “I half-wish I was a downfallen lady myself,–a haberdasher’s daughter from England! Oh, I hope I shall be a widow some time! Widows’ caps are so becoming!”

“Well,” replied Grace, laughing, “do your best for Goody Horn, and maybe she’ll let you have ‘dear Walter.’ Then you’ll be a widow soon,–he’s so feeble.”

“Oh, I wish I had the dressing of her! ‘She’d surprise herself,’ as the Dutchman said. I’d put a canary-coloured pompon and a white aigrette in that bonnet, and”–here she slipped a scarlet bird out of her own hat and stuck it into a fold of the crape Lucy was laying on to the old fashioned close frame–“I’d make her an upper skirt with a tie-back, get scarlet stockings and low shoes, and”—-

“Pho! you’d make the dear old soul look like Mother Hubbard!” cried another.

“No,” said Grace; “but she looks now like

“Little Dame Crump, with her brand-new broom;”

and no doubt Walter looks either like Mother Hubbard’s dog, or–or I don’t know what.”

“Oh, by-the-way, did you notice a violin on the bureau? Whoever gets ‘dear Walter’ will have a chance to do all the family dancing. The dowager’s too old, and Walter’s too lame; but there, what stuff I’m talking; it’s well mother isn’t within hearing. She won’t let me have any sport. But I do think old folks are so comical! I’ll do anything in the world to help them, though.”

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They worked on some time, and in the real kindness which was hidden under this nonsense they laid plans for the dear old stranger’s future comfort.

“Why, girls, it’s time she was here now!”

“Nora,” called Grace, as a girl passed the door, “when an old lady comes, send her right up stairs.”

“There was an old person here an hour ago, and as you told me not to let any one in who asked for you for an hour, I told her to sit down in the hall. I suppose she’s there now. I forgot all about her,” was the reply.

Grace flew down, but there was no one there.

“That was some old beggar who got tired of waiting. I’m sure she’ll be here soon,” said Lucy.

But she did not come, and they grew tired of waiting to try on the dress and hat. So they resolved to go, all four together, the next day, to the “opening at Madam Horn’s,” and carry the things themselves.

They did so; but when the “dowager” opened the door at their knock, they hardly knew her. She looked straight, and solemn, and cold. She did not even ask them in; but they went in and seated themselves.

Grace said, “You didn’t come yesterday to try on the dress, and thinking you might be ill, we brought it here.”

“But I did go, ladies. I went an hour earlier than you asked me, to beg that the dress might be cut perfectly plain, without upper skirt or flounce. The girl seated me in the hall, and while I sat there, I was forced to hear myself and my son ridiculed and turned to scorn in a way I could not believe possible.

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“I have done nothing to merit this. I never begged of you, nor sought your sympathy in my sorrows, and I cannot understand why I am made the butt of your scorn.”

“Oh, Mrs. Horn,” cried Lucy, “we were only in sport! I hope you will forgive us.”

“Is it sport to cast contempt on an aged woman who has been walking for years in a fiery furnace upheld and comforted by God? Is it sport to ridicule an unfortunate boy who has a continual warfare with pain to keep up this poor home?”

“Oh, don’t speak of it again!” said Grace blushing deeply and half-ready to cry, as she untied the package in her hand, while Lucy unpinned the paper that held the bonnet.

“Put them up, please, young ladies. I cannot look on them, and I never could wear them. When you first came, I told Walter that I felt as if a sunbeam had come into the house and remained behind you. Last night I told him that my new sunbeam had an arrow concealed in it.”

“But you will take the things, after all our trouble?” implored Grace, with tears dropping from her eyes.

“No, never; I can hear the Gospel in my old clothes. I should take no pleasure in these; they are associated with too painful thoughts. I hope God will bless you, children, and save you from an old age of poverty, and give you what He has given me,–a full trust in His love and tenderness. Good-by.”

You can imagine the feelings of those young girls when they left that poor room in tears.

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Respectful treatment is more to the sensitive poor than gifts of food, garments or money; and nothing is so likely to harden the hearts of the young as the habit of getting sport out of the sorrows and infirmities of others.

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