Classic Short Stories
His Wedded Wife
by Rudyard Kipling
Cry "Murder!" in the
market-place, and each
Will turn upon his neighbor anxious eyes
That ask:--"Art thou the man?" We hunted Cain,
Some centuries ago, across the world,
That bred the fear our own misdeeds maintain
something about worms, or it may be giants or beetles, turning if you tread on
them too severely. The safest plan is never to tread on a worm--not even on the
last new subaltern from Home, with his buttons hardly out of their tissue paper,
and the red of sappy English beef in his cheeks. This is the story of the worm
that turned. For the sake of brevity, we will call Henry Augustus Ramsay
Faizanne, "The Worm," although he really was an exceedingly pretty
boy, without a hair on his face, and with a waist like a girl's when he came out
to the Second "Shikarris" and was made unhappy in several ways. The
"Shikarris" are a high-caste regiment, and you must be able to do
things well-- play a banjo or ride more than a little, or sing, or act--to get
on with them.
The Worm did
nothing except fall off his pony, and knock chips out of gate-posts with his
trap. Even that became monotonous after a time. He objected to whist, cut the
cloth at billiards, sang out of tune, kept very much to himself, and wrote to
his Mamma and sisters at Home. Four of these five things were vices which the
"Shikarris" objected to and set themselves to eradicate. Every one
knows how subalterns are, by brother subalterns, softened and not permitted to
be ferocious. It is good and wholesome, and does no one any harm, unless tempers
are lost; and then there is trouble. There was a man once--but that is another
shikarred The Worm very much, and he bore everything without winking. He was so
good and so anxious to learn, and flushed so pink, that his education was cut
short, and he was left to his own devices by every one except the Senior
Subaltern, who continued to make life a burden to The Worm. The Senior Subaltern
meant no harm; but his chaff was coarse, and he didn't quite understand where to
stop. He had been waiting too long for his company; and that always sours a man.
Also he was in love, which made him worse.
One day, after
he had borrowed The Worm's trap for a lady who never existed, had used it
himself all the afternoon, had sent a note to The Worm purporting to come from
the lady, and was telling the Mess all about it, The Worm rose in his place and
said, in his quiet, ladylike voice: "That was a very pretty sell; but I'll
lay you a month's pay to a month's pay when you get your step, that I work a
sell on you that you'll remember for the rest of your days, and the Regiment
after you when you're dead or broke." The Worm wasn't angry in the least,
and the rest of the Mess shouted. Then the Senior Subaltern looked at The Worm
from the boots upwards, and down again, and said, "Done, Baby." The
Worm took the rest of the Mess to witness that the bet had been taken, and
retired into a book with a sweet smile.
passed, and the Senior Subaltern still educated The Worm, who began to move
about a little more as the hot weather came on. I have said that the Senior
Subaltern was in love. The curious thing is that a girl was in love with the
Senior Subaltern. Though the Colonel said awful things, and the Majors snorted,
and married Captains looked unutterable wisdom, and the juniors scoffed, those
two were engaged.
Subaltern was so pleased with getting his Company and his acceptance at the same
time that he forgot to bother The Worm. The girl was a pretty girl, and had
money of her own. She does not come into this story at all.
One night, at
the beginning of the hot weather, all the Mess, except The Worm, who had gone to
his own room to write Home letters, were sitting on the platform outside the
Mess House. The Band had finished playing, but no one wanted to go in. And the
Captains' wives were there also. The folly of a man in love is unlimited. The
Senior Subaltern had been holding forth on the merits of the girl he was engaged
to, and the ladies were purring approval, while the men yawned, when there was a
rustle of skirts in the dark, and a tired, faint voice lifted itself:
I do not wish in
the least to reflect on the morality of the "Shikarris;" but it is on
record that four men jumped up as if they had been shot. Three of them were
married men. Perhaps they were afraid that their wives had come from Home
unbeknownst. The fourth said that he had acted on the impulse of the moment. He
explained this afterwards.
Then the voice
cried:--"Oh, Lionel!" Lionel was the Senior Subaltern's name. A woman
came into the little circle of light by the candles on the peg-tables,
stretching out her hands to the dark where the Senior Subaltern was, and sobbing.
We rose to our feet, feeling that things were going to happen and ready to
believe the worst. In this bad, small world of ours, one knows so little of the
life of the next man--which, after all, is entirely his own concern-- that one
is not surprised when a crash comes. Anything might turn up any day for any one.
Perhaps the Senior Subaltern had been trapped in his youth. Men are crippled
that way occasionally. We didn't know; we wanted to hear; and the Captains'
wives were as anxious as we. If he HAD been trapped, he was to be excused; for
the woman from nowhere, in the dusty shoes, and gray travelling dress, was very
lovely, with black hair and great eyes full of tears. She was tall, with a fine
figure, and her voice had a running sob in it pitiful to hear. As soon as the
Senior Subaltern stood up, she threw her arms round his neck, and called him
"my darling," and said she could not bear waiting alone in England,
and his letters were so short and cold, and she was his to the end of the world,
and would he forgive her. This did not sound quite like a lady's way of speaking.
It was too demonstrative.
black indeed, and the Captains' wives peered under their eyebrows at the Senior
Subaltern, and the Colonel's face set like the Day of Judgment framed in gray
bristles, and no one spoke for a while.
Colonel said, very shortly:--"Well, Sir?" and the woman sobbed afresh.
The Senior Subaltern was half choked with the arms round his neck, but he gasped
out:--"It's a d----d lie! I never had a wife in my life!" "Don't
swear," said the Colonel. "Come into the Mess. We must sift this clear
somehow," and he sighed to himself, for he believed in his "Shikarris,"
did the Colonel.
We trooped into
the ante-room, under the full lights, and there we saw how beautiful the woman
was. She stood up in the middle of us all, sometimes choking with crying, then
hard and proud, and then holding out her arms to the Senior Subaltern. It was
like the fourth act of a tragedy. She told us how the Senior Subaltern had
married her when he was Home on leave eighteen months before; and she seemed to
know all that we knew, and more too, of his people and his past life. He was
white and ashy gray, trying now and again to break into the torrent of her words;
and we, noting how lovely she was and what a criminal he looked, esteemed him a
beast of the worst kind. We felt sorry for him, though.
I shall never
forget the indictment of the Senior Subaltern by his wife. Nor will he. It was
so sudden, rushing out of the dark, unannounced, into our dull lives. The
Captains' wives stood back; but their eyes were alight, and you could see that
they had already convicted and sentenced the Senior Subaltern. The Colonel
seemed five years older. One Major was shading his eyes with his hand and
watching the woman from underneath it. Another was chewing his moustache and
smiling quietly as if he were witnessing a play. Full in the open space in the
centre, by the whist-tables, the Senior Subaltern's terrier was hunting for
fleas. I remember all this as clearly as though a photograph were in my hand. I
remember the look of horror on the Senior Subaltern's face. It was rather like
seeing a man hanged; but much more interesting. Finally, the woman wound up by
saying that the Senior Subaltern carried a double F. M. in tattoo on his left
shoulder. We all knew that, and to our innocent minds it seemed to clinch the
matter. But one of the Bachelor Majors said very politely:--"I presume that
your marriage certificate would be more to the purpose?"
That roused the
woman. She stood up and sneered at the Senior Subaltern for a cur, and abused
the Major and the Colonel and all the rest. Then she wept, and then she pulled a
paper from her breast, saying imperially:--"Take that! And let my
husband--my lawfully wedded husband--read it aloud--if he dare!"
There was a
hush, and the men looked into each other's eyes as the Senior Subaltern came
forward in a dazed and dizzy way, and took the paper. We were wondering as we
stared, whether there was anything against any one of us that might turn up
later on. The Senior Subaltern's throat was dry; but, as he ran his eye over the
paper, he broke out into a hoarse cackle of relief, and said to the woman:--"You
But the woman
had fled through a door, and on the paper was written:--"This is to certify
that I, The Worm, have paid in full my debts to the Senior Subaltern, and,
further, that the Senior Subaltern is my debtor, by agreement on the 23d of
February, as by the Mess attested, to the extent of one month's Captain's pay,
in the lawful currency of the India Empire."
deputation set off for The Worm's quarters and found him, betwixt and between,
unlacing his stays, with the hat, wig, serge dress, etc., on the bed. He came
over as he was, and the "Shikarris" shouted till the Gunners' Mess
sent over to know if they might have a share of the fun. I think we were all,
except the Colonel and the Senior Subaltern, a little disappointed that the
scandal had come to nothing. But that is human nature. There could be no two
words about The Worm's acting. It leaned as near to a nasty tragedy as anything
this side of a joke can. When most of the Subalterns sat upon him with
sofa-cushions to find out why he had not said that acting was his strong point,
he answered very quietly:--"I don't think you ever asked me. I used to act
at Home with my sisters." But no acting with girls could account for The
Worm's display that night. Personally, I think it was in bad taste. Besides
being dangerous. There is no sort of use in playing with fire, even for fun.
made him President of the Regimental Dramatic Club; and, when the Senior
Subaltern paid up his debt, which he did at once, The Worm sank the money in
scenery and dresses. He was a good Worm; and the "Shikarris" are proud
of him. The only drawback is that he has been christened "Mrs. Senior
Subaltern;" and as there are now two Mrs. Senior Subalterns in the Station,
this is sometimes confusing to strangers.
Later on, I
will tell you of a case something like, this, but with all the jest left out and
nothing in it but real trouble.