Crawford's Sair Strait.
Chapter VI.
 

But Crawford had not a miser's nature. His house, his name, his children were dearer, after all, to him than gold. Hope springs eternal in the breast; in a little while he had provided himself with a new motive: he would marry Helen to young Farquharson, and endow her so royally that Farquharson would gladly take her name. There should be another house of Crawford of which Helen should be the root.

Helen had been long accustomed to consider Hugh Farquharson as her future husband. The young people, if not very eager lovers, were at least very warm and loyal friends. They had been in no hurry to finish the arrangement. Farquharson was in the Scot's Greys; it was understood that at his marriage he should resign his commission, so, though he greatly admired Helen, he was in no hurry to leave the delights of metropolitan and military life.

But suddenly Crawford became urgent for the fulfilment of the contract, and Helen, seeing how anxious he was, and knowing how sorely Colin had disappointed him, could no longer plead for a delay. And yet a strange sadness fell over her; some inexplicable symptoms as to her health led her to fear she would never be Farquharson's wife; the gay wedding attire that came from Edinburgh filled her with a still sorrow; she could not appropriate any part of it as her own.

One day when the preparations were nearly finished, Tallisker came up to the Keep. Helen saw at once that he was moved by some intense feeling, and there was a red spot on his cheeks which she had been accustomed to associate with the dominie's anger. The laird was sitting placidly smoking, and drinking toddy. He had been telling Helen of the grand house he was going to build on the new estate he had just bought; and he was now calmly considering how to carry out his plans on the most magnificent scale, for he had firmly determined there should be neither Keep nor Castle in the North Country as splendid as the new Crawfords' Home.

He greeted Tallisker with a peculiar kindness, and held his hand almost lovingly. His friendship for the dominie--if he had known it--was a grain of salt in his fast deteriorating life. He did not notice the dominie's stern preoccupation, he was so full of his own new plans. He began at once to lay them before his old friend; he had that very day got the estimates from the Edinburgh architect.

Tallisker looked at them a moment with a gathering anger. Then he pushed them passionately away, saying in a voice that was almost a sob, "I darena look at them, laird; I darena look at them! Do you ken that there are fourteen cases o' typhus in them colliers' cottages you built? Do you remember what Mr. Selwyn said about the right o' laborers to pure air and pure water? I knew he was right then, and yet, God forgive me! I let you tak your ain way. Six little bits o' bairns, twa women, and six o' your pit men! You must awa to Athol instanter for doctors and medicines and brandy and such things as are needfu'. There isna a minute to lose, laird."

Helen had risen while he was speaking with a calm determination that frightened her father. He did not answer Tallisker, he spoke to her: "Where are you going, Helen?"

"Down to the village; I can do something till better help is got."

"Helen Crawford, you'll bide where you are! Sit still, and I'll do whatever Tallisker bids me."

Then he turned angrily to the dominie.

"You are aye bringing me ill tidings. Am I to blame if death comes?"

"Am I my brother's keeper? It's an auld question, laird. The first murderer of a' asked it. I'm bound to say you are to blame. When you gie fever an invite to your cotters' homes, you darena lay the blame on the Almighty. You should hae built as Mr. Selwyn advised."

"Dominie, be quiet. I'm no a bairn, to be hectored o'er in this way. Say what I must do and I'll do it--anything in reason--only Helen. I'll no hae her leave the Keep; that's as sure as deathe. Sit down, Helen. Send a' the wine and dainties you like to, but don't you stir a foot o'er the threshold."

His anger was, in its way, as authoritative as the dominie's. Helen did as she was bid, more especially as Tallisker in this seconded the laird.

"There is naething she could do in the village that some old crone could not do better."

It was a bitterly annoying interruption to Crawford's pleasant dreams and plans. He got up and went over to the works. He found things very bad there. Three more of the men had left sick, and there was an unusual depression in the village. The next day the tidings were worse. He foresaw that he would have to work the men half time, and there had never been so many large and peremptory orders on hand. It was all very unfortunate to him.

Tallisker's self-reproaches were his own; he resented them, even while he acknowledged their truth. He wished he had built as Selwyn advised; he wished Tallisker had urged him more. It was not likely he would have listened to any urging, but it soothed him to think he would. And he greatly aggravated the dominie's trouble by saying,

"Why did ye na mak me do right, Tallisker? You should hae been mair determined wi' me, dominie."

During the next six weeks the dominie's efforts were almost superhuman. He saw every cottage whitewashed; he was nurse and doctor and cook. The laird saw him carrying wailing babies and holding raving men in his strong arms. He watched over the sick till the last ray of hope fled; he buried them tenderly when all was over. The splendor of the man's humanity had never shown itself until it stood erect and feared not, while the pestilence that walked in darkness and the destruction that wasted at noon-day dogged his every step.

The laird, too, tried to do his duty. Plenty of people are willing to play the Samaritan without the oil and the twopence, but that was not Crawford's way. Tallisker's outspoken blame had really made him tremble at his new responsibilities; he had put his hand liberally in his pocket to aid the sufferers. Perhaps at the foundation of all lay one haunting thought--Helen! If he did what he could for others, Helen would safer. He never audibly admitted that Helen was in any danger, but--but--if there should be danger, he was, he hoped, paying a ransom for her safety.

In six weeks the epidemic appeared to have spent itself. There was a talk of resuming full hours at the works. Twenty new hands had been sent for to fill vacant places. Still there was a shadow on the dominie's face, and he knew himself there was a shadow on his heart. Was it the still solemnity of death in which he had lately lived so much? Or was it the shadow of a coming instead of a departing sorrow?

One afternoon he thought he would go and sit with Helen a little while. During his close intimacy with the colliers he had learned many things which would change his methods of working for their welfare; and of these changes he wished to speak with Helen. She was just going for a walk on the moor, and he went with her. It was on such a September evening she had walked last with Colin. As they sauntered slowly, almost solemnly home, she remembered it. Some impulse far beyond her control or understanding urged her to say, "Dominie, when I am gone I leave Colin to you."

He looked at her with a sudden enlightenment. Her face had for a moment a far-away death-like predestination over it. His heart sank like lead as he looked at her.

"Are you ill, Helen?"

"I have not been well for two weeks."

He felt her hands; they were burning with fever.

"Let us go home," she said, and then she turned and gave one long, mournful look at the mountains and the sea and the great stretch of moorland. Tallisker knew in his heart she was bidding farewell to them. He had no word to say. There are moods of the soul beyond all human intermeddling.

The silence was broken by Helen. She pointed to the mountains. "How steadfast they are, how familiar with forgotten years! How small we are beside them!"

"I don't think so," said Tallisker stoutly. "Mountains are naething to men. How small is Sinai when the man Moses stands upon it!"

Then they were at the Keep garden. Helen pulled a handful of white and golden asters, and the laird, who had seen them coming, opened the door wide to welcome them. Alas! Alas! Though he saw it not, death entered with them. At midnight there was the old, old cry of despair and anguish, the hurrying for help, where no help was of avail, the desolation of a terror creeping hour by hour closer to the hearthstone.

The laird was stricken with a stony grief which was deaf to all consolation. He wandered up and down wringing his hands, and crying out at intervals like a man in mortal agony. Helen lay in a stupor while the fever burned her young life away. She muttered constantly the word "Colin;" and Tallisker, though he had no hope that Colin would ever reach his sister, wrote for the young laird.

Just before the last she became clearly, almost radiantly conscious. She would be alone with her father, and the old man, struggling bravely with his grief, knelt down beside her. She whispered to him that there was a paper in the jewel-box on her table. He went and got it. It was a tiny scrap folded crosswise. "Read it, father, when I am beyond all pain and grief. I shall trust you, dear." He could only bow his head upon her hands and weep.

"Tallisker!" she whispered, and he rose softly and called him. The two men stood together by her side.

"Is it well, my daughter?" said the dominie, with a tone of tender triumph in his voice. "You fear not, Helen, the bonds of death?"

"I trust in those pierced hands which have broken the bonds of death. Oh! the unspeakable riches!"

These were her last words. Tallisker prayed softly as the mystical gray shadow stole over the fair, tranquil face. It was soon all over.

  "She had outsoared the shadow of our night,
  And that unrest which men misname delight."

The bridal robes were folded away, the bridegroom went back to his regiment, the heartsore father tried to take up his life again. But it seemed to him to have been broken in two by the blow; and besides this, there was a little strip of paper which lay like a load upon his heart. It was the paper he had taken from Helen's dying fingers, and it contained her last request:

"Father, dear, dear father, whatever you intended to give me--I pray you--give it to God's poor.

"HELEN."