Scottish Sketches by Amelia E. Barr
Crawford's Sair Strait.
The dominie had felt certain that Colin would answer his letter in person, but after a long silence he received it back again. Colin had left Rome, and left no trace behind him. The laird knew that Tallisker had written, and he too had been hoping and expecting. But he received the news of his son's disappearance without remark. Life for some time was a dreary weight to him, he scarce felt as if he could lift it again. Hope after hope had failed him. He had longed so to be a rich man, had God in his anger granted him his wish? And was no other thing to prosper with him? All the same he clung to his gold with a deeper affection. When all other vices are old avarice is still young. As ambition and other motives died out, avarice usurped their places, and Tallisker saw with a feeling half angry, and half pitiful, the laird's life dwindling down to this most contemptible of all aims. He kept his duty as proprietor constantly before the laird, but he no longer seemed to care that people should say, "Crawford's men have the best laborers' cottages in Scotland."
"I hae made up my mind, Tallisker," said fretfully, "the warld thinks more o' the who mak money than o' those who gie it awa." Certainly this change was not a sudden one; for two years after Helen's death it was coming slowly forward, yet there were often times when Tallisker hoped that it was but a temptation, and would be finally conquered. Men do not lose the noble savor of humanity in a moment. Even on the downward road good angels wait anxiously, and whisper in every better moment to the lapsing soul, "Return!"
But there was a seed of bitterness in Crawford's heart, that was poisoning the man's spiritual life--a little bit of paper, yet it lay like a great stone over his noblest feelings, and sealed them up as in a sepulchre. Oh, if some angel would come and roll it away! He had never told the dominie of Helen's bequest. He did not dare to destroy the slip of paper, but he hid it in the most secret drawer of his secretary. He told himself that it was only a dying sentiment in Helen to wish it, and that it would be a foolish superstition in him to regard it. Perhaps in those last moments she had not understood what she was asking.
For a little while he found relief in this suggestion; then he remembered that the request must have been dictated before the fever had conquered her strength or judgment. The words were clearly written in Helen's neat, precise manner; there was not a hesitating line in the whole. She had evidently written it with care and consideration. No one could tell how that slip of paper haunted him. Even in the darkness of its secret hiding-place his spiritual eyes saw it clearly day and night.
To give to the poor all he had intended to give to Helen! He could not! He could not! He could not do it! Helen could not have known what she was asking. He had meant, in one way or another, to give her, as the founder of the new line of Crawfords, at least one hundred thousand pounds. Was it reasonable to scatter hither and yon such a large sum, earned, as he told himself pitifully, "by his ain wisdom and enterprise!"
The dominie knew nothing of this terrible struggle going on ever in the man's soul who sat by his side. He saw that Crawford was irritable and moody, but he laid the blame of it on Colin. Oh, if the lad would only write, he would go himself and bring him back to his father, though he should have to seek him at the ends of the earth. But four years passed away, and the prodigal sent no backward, homeward sign. Every night, then, the laird looked a moment into the dominie's face, and always the dominie shook his head. Ah, life has silences that are far more pathetic than death's.
One night Crawford said, almost in a whisper,
"He'll be dead, Tallisker."
And Tallisker answered promptly,
"He'll come hame, laird."
No other words about Colin passed between the two men in four years. But destiny loves surprises. One night Tallisker laid a letter on the table.
"It is for you, laird; read it."
It was a singular letter to come after so long a silence, and the laird's anger was almost excusable.
"Listen, Tallisker; did e'er you hear the like?
"'DEAR FATHER: I want, for a very laudable purpose, L4,000. It is not for myself in any way. If you will let me have it, I will trouble you with the proper explanations. If not, they will not be necessary. I have heard that you are well. I pray God to continue his mercy to you.
"'Your dutiful son,
"'Laudable purpose!'" cried the unhappy father, in a passion. "The lad is altogether too laudable. The letter is an insult, Tallisker. I'll ne'er forgive him for it. Oh, what a miserable father I am!"
And the dominie was moved to tears at the sight of his old friend's bitter anguish.
Still he asserted that Colin had meant it to be a kind letter.
"Dinna tak want o' sense for want o' affection laird. The lad is a conceited prig. He's set up wi' himsel' about something he is going to do. Let him hae the money. I would show him you can gie as grandly as he can ask loftily."
And, somehow, the idea pleased the laird. It was something that Colin had been obliged to ask him for money at all. He sat down and wrote out a check for the amount. Then he enclosed it with these words:
"SON COLIN CRAWFORD: I send you what you desire. I am glad your prospects are sae laudable; maybe it may enter your heart, some day, to consider it laudable to keep the Fifth Command. Your sister is dead. Life is lonely, but I thole it. I want nae explanations.
"What's the address, Tallisker?"
"Regent's Place, London."
The answer arrived in due time. It was as proper as a letter could be. Colin said he was just leaving for America, but did not expect to be more than six months there. But he never said a word about coming to Crawford. Tallisker was downright angry at the young man. It was true his father had told him he did not wish to see him again, but that had been said under a keen sense of family wrong and of bitter disappointment. Colin ought to have taken his father's ready response to his request as an overture of reconciliation. For a moment he was provoked with both of them.
"You are a dour lot, you Crawfords; ane o' you is prouder than the ither."
"The Crawfords are as God made them, dominie."
"And some o' them a little warse."
Yet, after all, it was Colin Tallisker was really angry at. For the present he had to let his anger lie by. Colin had gone, and given him no address in America.
"He is feared I will be telling him his duty, and when he comes back that is what I shall do, if I go to London to mak him hear me."
For a moment the laird looked hopefully into the dominie's face, but the hope was yet so far off he could not grasp it. Yet, in a dim, unacknowledged way it influenced him. He returned to his money-making with renewed vigor. It was evident he had let the hope of Colin's return steal into his heart. And the giving of that L4,000 Tallisker considered almost a sign of grace. It had not been given from any particularly noble motive; but any motive, not sinful, roused in opposition to simple avarice, was a gain. He was quite determined now to find Colin as soon as he returned from America.
In rather less than six months there were a few lines from Colin, saying that the money sent had been applied to the proper purpose, and had nobly fulfilled it. The laird had said he wanted no explanations, and Colin gave him none.
Tallisker read the letter with a half smile.
"He is just the maist contrary, conceited young man I e'er heard tell o'. Laird, as he wont come to us, I am going to him."
The laird said nothing. Any grief is better than a grief not sure. It would be a relief to know all, even if that "all" were painful.