Scottish Sketches by Amelia E. Barr
Crawford's Sair Strait.
One day, getting towards the end of December, the laird awoke in a singular mood. He had no mind to go to the works, and the weather promised to give him a good excuse. Over the dreary hills there was a mournful floating veil of mist. Clouds were flying rapidly in great masses, and showers streaming through the air in disordered ranks, driven furiously before a mad wind--a wind that before noon shook the doors and windows, and drove the bravest birds into hiding.
The laird wandered restlessly up and down.
"There is the dominie," cried Mrs. Hope, about one o'clock. "What brings him here through such a storm?"
Crawford walked to the door to meet him. He came striding over the soaking moor with his plaid folded tightly around him and his head bent before the blast. He was greatly excited.
"Crawford, come wi' me. The Athol passenger packet is driving before this wind, and there is a fishing smack in her wake."
"Gie us some brandy wi' us, Mrs. Hope, and you'll hae fires and blankets and a' things needfu' in case O' accident, ma'am." He was putting on his bonnet and plaid as he spoke, and in five minutes the men were hastening to the seaside.
It was a deadly coast to be on in a storm with a gale blowing to land. A long reef of sharp rocks lay all along it, and now the line of foaming breakers was to any ship a terrible omen of death and destruction. The packet was almost helpless, and the laird and Tallisker found a crowd of men waiting the catastrophe that was every moment imminent.
"She ought to hae gien hersel' plenty o' sea room," said the laird. He was half angry to see all the interest centred on the packet. The little fishing cobble was making, in his opinion, a far more sensible struggle for existence. She was managing her small resources with desperate skill.
"Tallisker," said the laird, "you stay here with these men. Rory and I are going half a mile up the coast. If the cobble drives on shore, the current will take a boat as light as she is over the Bogie Rock and into the surf yonder. There are doubtless three or four honest men in her, quite as weel worth the saving as those stranger merchant bodies that will be in the packet."
So Crawford and Rory hastened to the point they had decided on, and just as they reached it the boat became unmanageable. The wind took her in its teeth, shook her a moment or two like a thing of straw and rags, and then flung her, keel upwards, on the Bogie Rock. Two of the men were evidently good swimmers; the others were a boy and an old man. Crawford plunged boldly in after the latter. The waves buffeted him, and flung him down, and lifted him up, but he was a fine surf swimmer, and he knew every rock on that dangerous coast. After a hard struggle, all were brought safe to land.
Then they walked back to where the packet had been last seen. She had gone to pieces. A few men waited on the beach, picking up the dead, and such boxes and packages as were dashed on shore. Only three of all on board had been rescued, and they had been taken to the Keep for succor and rest.
The laird hastened home. He had not felt as young for many years. The struggle, though one of life and death, had not wearied him like a day's toil at the works, for it had been a struggle to which the soul had girded itself gladly, and helped and borne with it the mortal body. He came in all glowing and glad; a form lay on his own couch before the fire. The dominie and Mrs. Hope were bending over it. As he entered, Mrs. Hope sprang forward--
"Eh? Father? What is this?"
"Father, it is Colin."
Then he knew it all. Colin stretched out a feeble hand towards him. He was sorely bruised and hurt, he was white and helpless and death-like.
And the father knelt down beside him. Wife and friend walked softly away. In the solemn moment when these two long-parted souls met again there was no other love that could inter-meddle.
"My dear father--forgive me!"
Then the laird kissed his recovered son, and said tenderly,
"Son Colin, you are all I have, and all I have is yours."
"Father, my wife and son."
Then the old man proudly and fondly kissed Hope Crawford too, and he clasped the little lad in his arms. He was well pleased that Hope had thought it worth while to minister to his comfort, and let him learn how to know her fairly.
"But it was your doing, Tallisker, I ken it was; it has your mark on it." And he grasped his old friend's hand with a very hearty grip.
"Not altogether, laird. Colin had gone to Rome on business, and you were in sair discomfort, and I just named it to Mrs. Hope. After a' it was her proposal. Naebody but a woman would hae thought o' such a way to win round you."
Perhaps it was well that Colin was sick and very helpless for some weeks. During them the two men learned to understand and to respect each other's peculiarities. Crawford himself was wonderfully happy; he would not let any thought of the past darken his heart. He looked forward as hopefully as if he were yet on the threshold of life.
O mystery of life! from what depths proceed thy comforts and thy lessons! One morning at very early dawn Crawford awoke from a deep sleep in an indescribable awe. In some vision of the night he had visited that piteous home which memory builds, and where only in sleep we walk. Whom had he seen there? What message had he received? This he never told. He had been "spoken to."
Tallisker was not the man to smile at any such confidence. He saw no reason why God's messengers should not meet his children in the border-land of dreams. Thus he had counselled and visited the patriarchs and prophets of old. He was a God who changeth not; and if he had chosen to send Crawford a message in this way, it was doubtless some special word, for some special duty or sorrow. But he had really no idea of what Crawford had come to confess to him.
"Tallisker, I hae been a man in a sair strait for many a year. I hae not indeed hid the Lord's talent in a napkin, but I hae done a warse thing; I hae been trading wi' it for my ain proper advantage. O dominie, I hae been a wretched man through it all. Nane ken better than I what a hard master the deil is."
Then he told the dominie of Helen's bequest. He went over all the arguments with which he had hitherto quieted his conscience, and he anxiously watched their effect upon Tallisker. He had a hope even yet that the dominie might think them reasonable. But the table at which they sat was not less demonstrative than Tallisker's face; for once he absolutely controlled himself till the story was told. Then he said to Crawford,
"I'll no tak any responsibility in a matter between you and your conscience. If you gie it, gie it without regret and without holding back. Gie it cheerfully; God loves a cheerful giver. But it isna wi' me you'll find the wisdom to guide you in this matter. Shut yoursel' in your ain room, and sit down at the foot o' the cross and think it out. It is a big sum to gie away, but maybe, in the face o' that stupendous Sacrifice it willna seem so big. I'll walk up in the evening, laird; perhaps you will then hae decided what to do."
Crawford was partly disappointed. He had hoped that Tallisker would in some way take the burden from him--he had instead sent him to the foot of the cross. He did not feel as if he dared to neglect the advice; so he went thoughtfully to his own room and locked the door. Then he took out his private ledger. Many a page had been written the last ten years. It was the book of a very rich man. He thought of all his engagements and plans and hopes, and of how the withdrawal of so large a sum would affect them.
Then he took out Helen's last message, and sat down humbly with it where Tallisker had told him to sit. Suddenly Helen's last words came back to him, "Oh! the unspeakable riches!" What of? The cross of Christ--the redemption from eternal death--the promise of eternal life! Sin is like a nightmare; when we stir under it, we awake. Crawford sat thinking until his heart burned and softened, and great tears rolled slowly down his cheeks and dropped upon the paper in his hands. Then he thought of the richness of his own life--Colin and Hope, and the already beloved child Alexander--of his happy home, of the prosperity of his enterprises, of his loyal and loving friend Tallisker. What a contrast to the Life he had been told to remember! that pathetic Life that had not where to lay its head, that mysterious agony in Gethsemane, that sublime death on Calvary, and he cried out, "O Christ! O Saviour of my soul! all that I have is too little!"
When Tallisker came in the evening, Hope noticed a strange solemnity about the man. He, too, had been in the presence of God all day. He had been praying for his friend. But as soon as he saw Crawford he knew how the struggle had ended. Quietly they grasped each other's hand, and the evening meal was taken by Colin's side in pleasant cheerfulness. After it, when all were still, the laird spoke:
"Colin and Hope, I hae something I ought to tell you. When your sister Helen died she asked me to gie her share o' the estate to the poor children of our Father. I had intended giving Helen L100,000. It is a big sum, and I hae been in a sair strait about it. What say you, Colin?"
"My dear father, I say there is only one way out of that strait. The money must be given as Helen wished it. Helen was a noble girl. It was just like her."
"Ah, Colin, if you could only tell what a burden this bit o' paper has been to me! I left the great weight at the foot o' the cross this morning." As he spoke the paper dropped from his fingers and fell upon the table. Colin lifted it reverently and kissed it. "Father," he said, "may I keep it now? The day will come when the Crawfords will think with more pride of it than of any parchment they possess."
Then there was an appeal to Tallisker about its disposal. "Laird," he answered, "such a sum must be handled wi' great care. It is not enough to gie money, it must be gien wisely." But he promised to take on himself the labor of inquiry into different charities, and the consideration of what places and objects needed help most. "But, Crawford," he said, "if you hae any special desire, I think it should be regarded."
Then Crawford said he had indeed one. When he was himself young he had desired greatly to enter the ministry, but his father had laid upon him a duty to the family and estate which he had accepted instead.
"Now, dominie," he said, "canna I keep aye a young man in my place?"
"It is a worthy thought, Crawford."
So the first portion of Helen's bequest went to Aberdeen University. This endowment has sent out in Crawford's place many a noble young man into the harvest-field of the world, and who shall say for how many centuries it will keep his name green in earth and heaven! The distribution of the rest does not concern our story. It may safely be left in Dominie Tallisker's hands.
Of course, in some measure it altered Crawford's plans. The new house was abandoned and a wing built to the Keep for Colin's special use. In this portion the young man indulged freely his poetic, artistic tastes. And the laird got to like it. He used to tread softly as soon as his feet entered the large shaded rooms, full of skilful lights and white gleaming statues. He got to enjoy the hot, scented atmosphere and rare blossoms of the conservatory, and it became a daily delight to him to sit an hour in Colin's studio and watch the progress of some favorite picture.
But above all his life was made rich by his grandson. Nature, as she often does, reproduced in the second generation what she had totally omitted in the first. The boy was his grandfather over again. They agreed upon every point. It was the laird who taught Alexander to spear a salmon, and throw a trout-line, and stalk a deer. They had constant confidences about tackle and guns and snares. They were all day together on the hills. The works pleased the boy better than his father's studio. He trotted away with his grandfather gladly to them. The fires and molten metal, the wheels and hammers and tumult, were all enchantments to him. He never feared to leap into a collier's basket and swing down the deep, black shaft. He had also an appreciative love of money; he knew just how many sixpences he owned, and though he could give if asked to do so, he always wanted the dominie to give him a good reason for giving. The child gave him back again his youth, and a fuller and nobler one than he himself had known.
And God was very gracious to him, and lengthened out this second youth to a green old age. These men of old Gaul had iron constitutions; they did not begin to think themselves old men until they had turned fourscore. It was thirty years after Helen's death when Tallisker one night sent this word to his life-long friend,
"I hae been called, Crawford; come and see me once more."
They all went together to the manse. The dominie was in his ninety-first year, and he was going home. No one could call it dying. He had no pain. He was going to his last sleep
"As sweetly as a child, Whom neither thought disturbs nor care encumbers, Tired with long play, at close of summer's day Lies down and slumbers."
"Good-by, Crawford--for a little while. We'll hae nae tears. I hae lived joyfully before my God these ninety years; I am going out o' the sunshine into the sunshine. Crawford, through that sair strait o' yours you hae set a grand, wide-open door for a weight o' happiness. I am glad ye didna wait. A good will is a good thing, but a good life is far better. It is a grand thing to sow your ain good seed. Nae ither hand could hae done it sae well and sae wisely. Far and wide there are lads and lasses growing up to call you blessed. This is a thought to mak death easy, Crawford. Good-night, dears."
And then "God's finger touched him and he slept."
Crawford lived but a few weeks longer. After the dominie's death he simply sat waiting. His darling Alexander came home specially to brighten these last hours, and in his company he showed almost to the last hour the true Crawford spirit.
"Alexander," he would say, "you'll ding for your ain side and the Crawfords always, but you'll be a good man; there is nae happiness else, dear. Never rest, my lad, till ye sit where your fathers sat in the House o' Peers. Stand by the State and the Kirk, and fear God, Alexander. The lease o' the Cowden Knowes is near out; don't renew it. Grip tight what ye hae got, but pay every debt as if God wrote the bill. Remember the poor, dear lad. Charity gies itsel' rich. Riches mak to themselves wings, but charity clips the wings. The love o' God, dear, the love o' God--that is the best o' all."
Yes, he had a sair struggle with his lower nature to the very last, but he was constantly strengthened by the conviction of a "Power closer to him than breathing, nearer than hands or feet." Nine weeks after the dominie's death they found him sitting in his chair, fallen on that sleep whose waking is eternal day. His death was like Tallisker's--a perfectly natural one. He had been reading. The Bible lay open at that grand peroration of St. Paul's on faith, in the twelfth of Hebrews. The "great cloud of witnesses," "the sin which doth so easily beset us," "Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith"--these were probably his last earthly thoughts, and with them he passed into
"That perfect presence of His face Which we, for want of words, call heaven."