He realised now what had happened to him—a thing that of all things he had learned to dread most,—a desperate temptation. He answered, and his tone and manner gave her no glimpse of the shock of opposing forces that had taken place within a heart that for many months had been dwelling in the calm of victory.
“I cannot do it, Ann.”
“Bart Toyner,” she said, “I’m all alone in this world; there’s not a soul to help me. Every one’s against me and against him. Don’t turn against me; I need your help—oh, I need it! I never professed to care about you; but if your father was in danger of dying an awful death and you came to me for help, I wouldn’t refuse you, you know I wouldn’t.”
He only spoke now with the wish to conceal from her the panic within; for with the overwhelming desire to yield to her had come a ghastly fear that he was going to yield, and faith and hope fled from him. He saw himself standing there face to face with his idea of God, and this temptation between him and God. The temptation grew in magnitude, and God withdrew His face.
“I know, Ann, it sounds hard about your father” (mechanically); “but you must try and think how it would be if he was lying wounded like Walker and some other man had done it. Wouldn’t you think the law was in the right then?”
“No!” (quickly). “If father’d got a simple wound, and could be nursed and taken care of comfortably until he died, I wouldn’t want any man to be hanged for it. It’s an awful, awful thing to be hanged.”
She waited a moment, and he did not speak. The lesser light of night is fraught with illusions. She thought that she saw him there quite plainly standing quiet and indifferent. She was so accustomed to his appearance—the carefulness of his dress, the grave eyes, and the thin, drooping moustache—that her mind by habit filled in these details which she did not in reality see; nor did she see the look of agonised prayer that came and went across the habitual reserve of his face.
“Can’t you believe what I say, Bart? I say that I will give up dancing and selling beer, and sign the pledge, and dress plain, and go to church. I say I will do it and Christa will do it; and you can teach us all you’ve a mind to, day in and day out, and we’ll learn if we can. Isn’t it far better to save Christa and me—two souls, than to hunt one poor man to death? Don’t you believe that I’ll do what I promise? I’ll go right home now and give it to you in writing, if you like.”
“I do believe you, Ann.” He stopped to regain the steadiness of his voice. He had had training in forcing his voice in the last few months, for he hated to bear verbal testimony to his religious beliefs, and yet he had taught himself to do it. He succeeded in speaking steadily now, in the same strong voice in which he had learnt to pray at meetings. It was not exactly his natural voice. It sounded sanctimonious and ostentatious, but that was because he was forced to conceal that his heart within him was quaking. “I do believe that you would do what you say, Ann; but it isn’t right to do evil that good may come.”