Her Own People by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The Taunton School had closed for the summer holidays. Constance Foster and Miss Channing went down the long, elm-shaded street together, as they generally did, because they happened to board on the same block downtown.
Constance was the youngest teacher on the staff, and had charge of the Primary Department. She had taught in Taunton school a year, and at its close she was as much of a stranger in the little corps of teachers as she had been at the beginning. The others thought her stiff and unapproachable; she was unpopular in a negative way with all except Miss Channing, who made it a profession to like everybody, the more so if other people disliked them. Miss Channing was the oldest teacher on the staff, and taught the fifth grade. She was short and stout and jolly; nothing, not even the iciest reserve, ever daunted Miss Channing.
"Isn't it good to think of two whole blessed months of freedom?" she said jubilantly. "Two months to dream, to be lazy, to go where one pleases, no exercises to correct, no reports to make, no pupils to keep in order. To be sure, I love them every one, but I'll love them all the more for a bit of a rest from them. Isn't it good?"
A little satirical smile crossed Constance Foster's dark, discontented face, looking just then all the more discontented in contrast to Miss Channing's rosy, beaming countenance.
"It's very good, if you have anywhere to go, or anybody who cares where you go," she said bitterly. "For my own part, I'm sorry school is closed. I'd rather go on teaching all summer."
"Heresy!" said Miss Channing. "Rank heresy! What are your vacation plans?"
"I haven't any," said Constance wearily. "I've put off thinking about vacation as long as I possibly could. You'll call that heresy, too, Miss Channing."
"It's worse than heresy," said Miss Channing briskly. "It's a crying necessity for blue pills, that's what it is. Your whole mental and moral and physical and spiritual system must be out of kilter, my child. No vacation plans! You must have vacation plans. You must be going somewhere."
"Oh, I suppose I'll hunt up a boarding place somewhere in the country, and go there and mope until September."
"Have you no friends, Constance?"
"No--no, I haven't anybody in the world. That is why I hate vacation, that is why I've hated to hear you and the others discussing your vacation plans. You all have somebody to go to. It has just filled me up with hatred of my life."
Miss Channing swallowed her honest horror at such a state of feeling.
"Constance, tell me about yourself. I've often wanted to ask you, but I was always a little afraid to. You seem so reserved and--and, as if you didn't want to be asked about yourself."
"I know it. I know I'm stiff and hateful, and that nobody likes me, and that it is all my own fault. No, never mind trying to smooth it over, Miss Channing. It's the truth, and it hurts me, but I can't help it. I'm getting more bitter and pessimistic and unwholesome every day of my life. Sometimes it seems as if I hated all the world because I'm so lonely in it. I'm nobody. My mother died when I was born--and Father--oh, I don't know. One can't say anything against one's father, Miss Channing. But I had a hard childhood--or rather, I didn't have any childhood at all. We were always moving about. We didn't seem to have any friends at all. My mother might have had relatives somewhere, but I never heard of any. I don't even know where her home was. Father never would talk of her. He died two years ago, and since then I've been absolutely alone."
"Oh, you poor girl," said Miss Channing softly.
"I want friends," went on Constance, seeming to take a pleasure in open confession now that her tongue was loosed. "I've always just longed for somebody belonging to me to love. I don't love anybody, Miss Channing, and when a girl is in that state, she is all wrong. She gets hard and bitter and resentful--I have, anyway. I struggled against it at first, but it has been too much for me. It poisons everything. There is nobody to care anything about me, whether I live or die."
"Oh, yes, there is One," said Miss Channing gently. "God cares, Constance."
Constance gave a disagreeable little laugh.
"That sounds like Miss Williams--she is so religious. God doesn't mean anything to me, Miss Channing. I've just the same resentful feeling toward him that I have for all the world, if he exists at all. There, I've shocked you in good earnest now. You should have left me alone, Miss Channing."
"God means nothing to you because you've never had him translated to you through human love, Constance," said Miss Channing seriously. "No, you haven't shocked me--at least, not in the way you mean. I'm only terribly sorry."
"Oh, never mind me," said Constance, freezing up into her reserve again as if she regretted her confidences. "I'll get along all right. This is one of my off days, when everything looks black."
Miss Channing walked on in silence. She must help Constance, but Constance was not easily helped. When school reopened, she might be able to do something worthwhile for the girl, but just now the only thing to do was to put her in the way of a pleasant vacation.
"You spoke of boarding," she said, when Constance paused at the door of her boarding-house. "Have you any particular place in view? No? Well, I know a place which I am sure you would like. I was there two summers ago. It is a country place about a hundred miles from here. Pine Valley is its name. It's restful and homey, and the people are so nice. If you like, I'll give you the address of the family I boarded with."
"Thank you," said Constance indifferently. "I might as well go there as anywhere else."
"Yes, but listen to me, dear. Don't take your morbidness with you. Open your heart to the summer, and let its sunshine in, and when you come back in the fall, come prepared to let us all be your friends. We'd like to be, and while friendship doesn't take the place of the love of one's own people, still it is a good and beautiful thing. Besides, there are other unhappy people in the world--try to help them when you meet them, and you'll forget about yourself. Good-by for now, and I hope you'll have a pleasant vacation in spite of yourself."
Constance went to Pine Valley, but she took her evil spirit with her. Not even the beauty of the valley, with its great balmy pines, and the cheerful friendliness of its people could exorcise it.
Nevertheless, she liked the place and found a wholesome pleasure in the long tramps she took along the piney roads.
"I saw such a pretty spot in my ramble this afternoon," she told her landlady one evening. "It is about three miles from here at the end of the valley. Such a picturesque, low-eaved little house, all covered over with honeysuckle. It was set between a big orchard and an old-fashioned flower garden with great pines at the back."
"Heartsease Farm," said Mrs. Hewitt promptly. "Bless you, there's only one place around here of that description. Mr. and Mrs. Bruce, Uncle Charles and Aunt Flora, as we all call them, live there. They are the dearest old couple alive. You ought to go and see them, they'd be delighted. Aunt Flora just loves company. They're real lonesome by times."
"Haven't they any children?" asked Constance indifferently. Her interest was in the place, not in the people.
"No. They had a niece once, though. They brought her up and they just worshipped her. She ran away with a worthless fellow--I forget his name, if I ever knew it. He was handsome and smooth-tongued, but he was a scamp. She died soon after and it just broke their hearts. They don't even know where she was buried, and they never heard anything more about her husband. I've heard that Aunt Flora's hair turned snow-white in a month. I'll take you up to see her some day when I find time."
Mrs. Hewitt did not find time, but thereafter Constance ordered her rambles that she might frequently pass Heartsease Farm. The quaint old spot had a strange attraction for her. She found herself learning to love it, and so unused was this unfortunate girl to loving anything that she laughed at herself for her foolishness.
One evening a fortnight later Constance, with her arms full of ferns and wood-lilies, came out of the pine woods above Heartsease Farm just as heavy raindrops began to fall. She had prolonged her ramble unseasonably, and it was now nearly night, and very certainly a rainy night at that. She was three miles from home and without even an extra wrap.
She hurried down the lane, but by the time she reached the main road, the few drops had become a downpour. She must seek shelter somewhere, and Heartsease Farm was the nearest. She pushed open the gate and ran up the slope of the yard between the hedges of sweetbriar. She was spared the trouble of knocking, for as she came to a breathless halt on the big red sandstone doorstep, the door was flung open, and the white-haired, happy-faced little woman standing on the threshold had seized her hand and drawn her in bodily before she could speak a word.
"I saw you coming from upstairs," said Aunt Flora gleefully, "and I just ran down as fast as I could. Dear, dear, you are a little wet. But we'll soon dry you. Come right in--I've a bit of a fire in the grate, for the evening is chilly. They laughed at me for loving a fire so, but there's nothing like its snap and sparkle. You're rained in for the night, and I'm as glad as I can be. I know who you are--you are Miss Foster. I'm Aunt Flora, and this is Uncle Charles."
Constance let herself be put into a cushiony chair and fussed over with an unaccustomed sense of pleasure. The rain was coming down in torrents, and she certainly was domiciled at Heartsease Farm for the night. Somehow, she felt glad of it. Mrs. Hewitt was right in calling Aunt Flora sweet, and Uncle Charles was a big, jolly, ruddy-faced old man with a hearty manner. He shook Constance's hand until it ached, threw more pine knots in the fire and told her he wished it would rain every night if it rained down a nice little girl like her.
She found herself strangely attracted to the old couple. The name of their farm was in perfect keeping with their atmosphere. Constance's frozen soul expanded in it. She chatted merrily and girlishly, feeling as if she had known them all her life.
When bedtime came, Aunt Flora took her upstairs to a little gable room.
"My spare room is all in disorder just now, dearie, we have been painting its floor. So I'm going to put you here in Jeannie's room. Someway you remind me of her, and you are just about the age she was when she left us. If it wasn't for that, I don't think I could put you in her room, not even if every other floor in the house were being painted. It is so sacred to me. I keep it just as she left it, not a thing is changed. Good night dearie, and I hope you'll have pleasant dreams."
When Constance found herself alone in the room, she looked about her with curiosity. It was a very dainty, old-fashioned little room. The floor was covered with braided mats; the two square, small-paned windows were draped with snowy muslin. In one corner was a little white bed with white curtains and daintily ruffled pillows, and in the other a dressing table with a gilt-framed mirror and the various knick-knacks of a girlish toilet. There was a little blue rocker and an ottoman with a work-basket on it. In the work-basket was a bit of unfinished, yellowed lace with a needle sticking in it. A small bookcase under the sloping ceiling was filled with books.
Constance picked up one and opened it at the yellowing title-page. She gave a little cry of surprise. The name written across the page in a fine, dainty script was "Jean Constance Irving," her mother's name!
For a moment Constance stood motionless. Then she turned impulsively and hurried downstairs again. Mr. and Mrs. Bruce were still in the sitting room talking to each other in the firelight.
"Oh," cried Constance excitedly. "I must know, I must ask you. This is my mother's name, Jean Constance Irving, can it be possible she was your little Jeannie?"
* * * * *
A fortnight later Miss Channing received a letter from Constance.
"I am so happy," she wrote. "Oh, Miss Channing, I have found 'mine own people,' and Heartsease Farm is to be my own, own dear home for always.
"It was such a strange coincidence, no, Aunt Flora says it was Providence, and I believe it was, too. I came here one rainy night, and Aunty put me in my mother's room, think of it! My own dear mother's room, and I found her name in a book. And now the mystery is all cleared up, and we are so happy.
"Everything is dear and beautiful, and almost the dearest and most beautiful thing is that I am getting acquainted with my mother, the mother I never knew before. She no longer seems dead to me. I feel that she lives and loves me, and I am learning to know her better every day. I have her room and her books and all her little girlish possessions. When I read her books, with their passages underlined by her hand, I feel as if she were speaking to me. She was very good and sweet, in spite of her one foolish, bitter mistake, and I want to be as much like her as I can.
"I said that this was almost the dearest and most beautiful thing. The very dearest and most beautiful is this--God means something to me now. He means so much! I remember that you said to me that he meant nothing to me because I had no human love in my heart to translate the divine. But I have now, and it has led me to Him.
"I am not going back to Taunton. I have sent in my resignation. I am going to stay home with Aunty and Uncle. It is so sweet to say home and know what it means.
"Aunty says you must come and spend all your next vacation with us. You see, I have lots of vacation plans now, even for a year ahead. After all, there is no need of the blue pills!
"I feel like a new creature, made over from the heart and soul out. I look back with shame and contrition on the old Constance. I want you to forget her and only remember your grateful friend, the new Constance."