His Wedded Wife 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
Shakespeare says 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 wormnot 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 actto get on
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 oncebut that is another story.
The "Shikarris" 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.
Two months 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.
The Senior 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:
"Where's my husband?"
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
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 manwhich, 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.
Things seemed 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.
Next the 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 dd 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 husbandmy
lawfully wedded husbandread it aloudif 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 young blackguard!"
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."
Then a 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.
The "Shikarris" 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.