The Captain's Wife
: The Coming Conquest Of England
As a married man, Captain Irwin was not quartered in one of the wooden
barracks of the English camp, but had his own bungalow in the suburbs.
It was a house of one story with a broad verandah, was surrounded by
a large well-kept garden, and formerly served a high official of the
Maharajah as a residence. Apart from it lay two smaller buildings used
as servants' quarters, of which, however, only one was at present in
The sun of that same day, that had brought Hermann Heideck face to face
with such momentous matters affecting his future for his final decision,
was sinking rapidly into the heavens as he passed through the cactus
hedge and bamboo thicket of the garden surrounding Irwin's bungalow.
He was attired in an evening dress of the lightest black cloth, such as
is prescribed by English custom for a visit paid at the dinner-hour in
He did not come that evening of his own initiative, for Irwin's morning
salutation did not promise anything in the way of an invitation. A
letter from Mrs. Irwin had, to his surprise, begged his company at
this hour. He had gathered from the tone of the letter that something
especially urgent required his presence, and he was not slow in
supposing that the reason was the unfortunate party at poker in which
the Captain had taken part.
What, however, could have induced Mrs. Irwin to appeal to him was still
an enigma, for his relations to the beautiful young wife had until then
not been of a confidential nature. He had met her on several occasions
in big society functions, at the officers' polo-parties, and at similar
gatherings, and if, attracted by her grace and intellect, he had perhaps
paid more attention to the Captain's wife than to any of the other
ladies of the party, their relations had been strictly confined within
conventional limits, and it would never have occurred to him to imagine
himself specially favoured by Mrs. Irwin.
The dainty Indian handmaid of the lady received him and conducted him to
the verandah. Mrs. Irwin, who, dressed in red silk, had been seated in
a rocking-chair, advanced a few steps to meet him. Once more Irwin felt
himself enchanted by the charm of her appearance.
She was a genuine English beauty of tall and splendid proportions,
finely chiselled features, and that white transparent skin which lends
to Albion's daughters their distinctive charm. Abundant dark brown hair
clustered in thick, natural folds round the broad forehead, and her blue
eyes had the clear, calm gaze of a personality at once intelligent and
At this moment the young wife, whom Heideck had hitherto only known as
the placid and unemotional lady of the world, certainly seemed to labour
under some excitement, which she could not completely conceal. There
was something of embarrassment in the manner with which she received her
"I am exceedingly obliged to you for coming, Mr. Heideck. My invitation
will have surprised you, but I did not know what else to do. Please let
us go into the drawing-room; it is getting very chilly outside."
Heideck did not notice anything of the chilliness of which she
complained, but he thought he understood that it was only the fear of
eavesdropping that prompted the wish of the young wife. As a matter
of fact, she closed the glass door behind him, and motioned him to be
seated in one of the large cane chairs before her.
"Captain Irwin is not at home," she began, evidently struggling with
severe embarrassment. "He has ridden off to inspect his squadron, and
will not be home, as he told me, before daybreak."
Heideck did not quite understand why she told him this. Had he been a
flirt, convinced of his own irresistibility, he would perhaps have
found in her words a very transparent encouragement; but he was far from
discerning any such meaning in Edith's words. The respect in which he
had held this beautiful young wife, since the first moment of their
acquaintance, sufficiently protected her from any such dishonourable
suspicions. That she had bidden him there at a time when she must know
that their conversation would not be disturbed by the presence of her
husband, must assuredly have had other reasons than the mere desire for
And as he saw her sitting before him, with a look of deep distress on
her face, there arose in his heart no other than the honest wish to
be able to do this poor creature, who was evidently most unhappy, some
But he had not the courage to suggest anything of the sort before she
had given him in an unequivocal way a right to do so. Hence it was that
he waited in silence for anything further that she might wish to say.
And there was a fairly long and somewhat painful pause before Mrs.
Irwin, evidently collecting all her courage, went on: "You witnessed
the scene that took place last evening in the officers' mess between my
husband and Captain McGregor? If I have been rightly informed, I owe it
solely to you that my husband did not, in the excitement of the moment,
lay hand on himself."
Heideck turned modestly away.
"I did absolutely nothing to give me any claim to your gratitude, Mrs.
Irwin, and I do not really believe that your husband would have so far
forgot himself as to commit such a silly and desperate deed. At the last
moment, a thought of you would certainly have restrained him from taking
such a step."
He was surprised at the expression of disdain which the face of the
young wife assumed as he said this, and at the hard ring in her voice,
when she replied--
"Thoughts of me? No! how little you know my husband. He is not wont
to make the smallest sacrifice for me, and, maybe, his voluntary death
would not, after all, be the worst misery he is capable of inflicting on
She saw the look of utter surprise in his eyes, and therefore quickly
"You will, I know, consider me the most heartless woman in the world
because I can talk to a stranger like this; but is not in your country
loss of honour regarded as worse than death?"
"Under certain circumstances--yes; but your husband's position is not,
I hope, to be viewed in this tragic light. Judging from the impression
that Captain McGregor's personality has made upon me, I should say
that he is not the man to drive Mr. Irwin to take an extreme course on
account of a recklessly incurred debt at cards."
"Oh no! you judge of that honourable man quite correctly. He would
be best pleased to forego the whole amount, and with the intention of
bringing about such an arrangement he called here this afternoon. But
the foolish pride and unbounded vanity of Irwin brought all his good
intentions to naught. The result of McGregor's well-meant endeavours
was only a violent scene, which made matters a thousand times worse. My
husband is determined to pay his debt at any price."
"And--pardon me the indiscreet question--is he capable of doing so?"
"If he uses my fortune for the purpose--certainly! and I have at once
placed it at his disposal; and I further told him that he could take
everything, even the last penny, if this sacrifice on my part would
suffice to get rid of him for ever."
Heideck could scarcely believe his ears. He was prepared for anything on
earth except to hear such confessions. He began to doubt this woman, who
hitherto had seemed to him to be the paragon of all feminine virtues,
and he sought an opportunity of escaping from further confessions of the
kind, which, as he told himself, she would repent of in the course of an
hour or so.
"Nobody can expect of you, Mrs. Irwin, that for a criminal recklessness,
a hasty action on the part of your husband, who was probably deep in his
cups, you should make such a tremendous sacrifice; but, as you have now
done me the honour to consult me on these matters, it is perhaps not
unbecoming on my part if I tell you that your husband should, in my
opinion, be forced to bear the consequences of his action. You need not
be at all apprehensive that these consequences will be very serious.
McGregor will certainly not press him; and as we seem to be on the
threshold of a war, his superior officers are not likely to be too
severe upon him in this matter. He will, perhaps, either find an
opportunity to rehabilitate his compromised honour or will find his
death on the battlefield. Within a few weeks, or months, all these
matters which at present cause you so much trouble will present quite a
"You are very kind, Mr. Heideck, and I thank you for your friendly
intentions; but I would not have invited you here at this unusual hour
had it been solely my intention to enlist your kind sympathy. I am in a
most deplorable plight--doubly so, because there is no one here to whom
I can turn for advice and assistance. That in my despair I thought of
you has, no doubt, greatly surprised you; and now I can myself hardly
understand how I could have presumed to trouble you with my worries."
"If you would only, Mrs. Irwin, show me how I can be of service to you,
I would pray you to make any use you will of me. I am absolutely and
entirely at your disposal, and your confidence would make me exceedingly
"As a gentleman, you could not, of course, give any other answer. But,
in your heart of hearts, you probably consider my conduct both unwomanly
and unbecoming, for it is true that we hardly know each other. Over in
England, and certainly in your German fatherland quite as well, such
casual meetings as ours have been could not possibly give me the right
to treat you as a friend, and I do not really know how far you are
influenced by these European considerations."
"In Germany, as in England, every defenceless and unhappy woman would
have an immediate claim upon my assistance," he seriously replied. "If
you give me the preference over your friends here, I, on my part, have
only to be grateful, and need not inquire further into your motives."
"But, of course, I will tell you what my motives are. My friends in this
place are naturally my husband's comrades, and I cannot turn to them if
I do not intend to sign Irwin's death warrant. Not a single man amongst
them would allow that a man of my husband's stamp should remain an hour
longer a member of the corps of officers in the British Army."
"I do not quite understand you, Mrs. Irwin. The gambling debt of your
husband is, after all, no longer a secret to his comrades."
"That is not the point. How do you judge of a man who would sell his
wife to pay his gambling debts?"
This last sentence struck Heideck like a blow. With dilated eyes he
stared at the young wife who had launched such a terrible indictment
against her husband. Never had she looked to him so charming as in this
moment, when a sensation of womanly shame had suffused her pale cheeks
with a crimson blush. Never had he felt with such clearness what a
precious treasure this charming creature would be to a man to whom she
gave herself in love for his very own; and the less he doubted that
she had just spoken the simple truth, the more did his heart rise in
passionate wrath at the miserable reptile who was abandoned enough to
drag this precious pearl in the mire.
"I do not presume to connect your question with Captain Irwin," said
Heideck, in a perceptibly tremulous voice, "for if he were really
capable of doing so--"
Edith interrupted him, pointing to a small case that lay on the little
table beside her.
"Would you kindly just look at this ring, Mr. Heideck?"
He did as he was asked, and thought he recognised the beautiful diamond
ring that he had yesterday seen sparkling on Irwin's finger. He asked
whether it was so, and the young wife nodded assent.
"I gave it to my husband on our wedding-day. The ring is an heirloom in
my family. Jewellers value it at more than a thousand pounds."
"And why, may I ask, does your husband no longer wear it?"
"Because he intends to sell it. Of course, the Maharajah is the only
person who can afford the luxury of such articles, and my husband wishes
me to conclude the bargain with the Prince."
"You, Mrs. Irwin? And why, pray, does he not do it himself?"
"Because the Maharajah will not pay him the price he demands. My husband
will not let the ring go under two lakhs."
"But that is a tremendous sum! That would be paying for it twelve times
"My husband is, all the same, certain that the bargain would come off
quite easily, provided I personally negotiated it."
It was impossible to misunderstand the meaning of these words, and so
great was the indignation they awoke in Heideck, that he sprang up in a
bound from his chair.
"No! that is impossible--it cannot be! He cannot possibly have suggested
that! You must have misunderstood him. No man, no officer, no gentleman,
could ever be guilty of such a low, mean action!"
"You would be less surprised if you had had the opportunity to know
him, as I have had, during the short time of our wedded life. There is
practically no act or deed of his that would surprise me now. He has
long since ceased to love me; and a wife, whose person has become
indifferent to him, has, in his eyes, only a marketable value. It may be
that some excuse can even be found for his way of regarding things. It
is, possibly, an atavistic relapse into the views of his ancestors, who,
when they were sick of their wives, led them with a halter round their
necks into the marketplace and sold them to the highest bidder. They say
it is not so long ago that this pretty custom has gone out of vogue."
"No more, Mrs. Irwin," Heideck broke in; "I cannot bear to hear you
speak like that. I must say that I still consider the Captain to have
been out of his mind when he dared to expect such a thing of you."
The young wife shook her head with a severe quiver of the lips. "Oh no!
he was neither intoxicated nor especially excited when he asked me to do
him this 'LITTLE' kindness; he probably considered that I ought to
feel myself intensely flattered that His Indian Highness thought my
insignificant person worth such a large price. I have certainly for some
time past been quite conscious of the fact that, quite unwittingly, I
have attracted the notice of the Maharajah. Immediately after our first
meeting he began to annoy me with his attentions. I never took any
notice, and never, for one moment, dreamt of the possibility that
his--his--what shall I call it--his admiration could rise to criminal
desires; but, after what I have experienced to-day, I cannot help
believing that it is the case."
"But this monstrosity, Mrs. Irwin, will be past and gone as soon as you
indignantly repudiate the suggestion of your abandoned husband?"
"Between him and me--yes, that is true. But I am not at all certain if
the Maharajah's infatuation will then have really ceased to exist. My
Indian handmaid has been told by one of her countrymen to warn me of a
danger that threatens me. The man did not tell her wherein this danger
consists, but I am at a loss to know from what quarter it should
threaten, if not from the Maharajah."
Heideck shook his head incredulously.
"You have certainly nothing to fear in that quarter; he knows full well
that he would have the whole of the British power against him dared
he only--be it with one word--attempt to wrong the wife of an English
officer. He would be a sheer madman to allow things to come to that
"Well, after all, he may have some despotic insanity in him. We must
not forget that the time is not so far distant when all these tyrants
disposed absolutely of the life and death and body and soul of their
subjects. Who knows, too, what my husband--But perhaps you are right.
It may only be a foolish suspicion that has upset me; and it is just for
this reason that I did not wish to speak about it to any of my husband's
messmates. I have opened my heart to you alone. I know that you are an
honourable man, and that nobody will learn from your mouth what we have
spoken about during this past hour."
"I am very much indebted to you, Mrs. Irwin, for your confidence, and
should be only too willing to do what I could to relieve your anxiety
and trouble. You are apprehensive of some unknown danger, and you are
this night, in your husband's absence, without any other protection but
that of your Indian servants. Would you permit me to remain close by,
until tomorrow daybreak?"
With a blush that made her heart beat faster, Edith Irwin shook her
"No! no! that is impossible; and I do not think that here, in the
protection of my house and among my own servants, any mishap could
befall me. Only in case that something should happen to me at another
time and at another place, I would beg of you to acquaint Colonel Baird
with the subject of our conversation this evening; people will then
perhaps better understand the connexion of things."
And now Heideck perfectly understood why she had chosen to make him, a
stranger, her confidant; and he thought that he understood also that it
was not so much of an attempt on the part of the Maharajah as of her
own husband's villainy that the unhappy young wife was afraid. But his
delicate feelings restrained him from saying in outspoken language that
he had comprehended what she wished to convey. It was after all enough
that she knew she could rely upon him; and of this she must have been
already sufficiently convinced, although it was only the fire of his
eyes that told her so, and the long, warm kiss that his lips impressed
upon the small, icy-cold hand which the poor young lady presented to him
"You will permit me to pay you another call tomorrow, will you not?"
"I will send you word when I expect you. I should not care for you to
meet my husband; perhaps he has some idea that you are friendly inclined
towards me; and that would be sufficient to fill him with suspicion and
aversion towards you."
She clapped her hands, and as the Indian handmaid entered the room to
escort the visitor to the door, Heideck had to leave her last remark
unanswered. But, as on the threshold he again turned to bow his
farewell, his eyes met hers, and though their lips were dumb, they had
perhaps told one another more in this single second than during the
whole time of their long tete-a-tete.