Set exclusively in the British Indian Empire (mainly India, but also Burma) in the final years of the 19th century, the story is told by Gerald Ethridge, a young, high-ranking member of the Indian Civil Service. Anna Lombard, the 21-year-old daughter of a general, has just arrived from England to join her father when she is introduced to Ethridge at a ball. Attracted to each other from the very first moment, they are not given a chance to actually express their feelings when Ethridge is suddenly transferred from India to Burma.
On his return a year later he is shocked to learn that Anna is having a secret affair with one of her Pathan servants—although she asserts that they got officially married in some secret Muslim ceremony. Ethridge, however, does not desert her when she declares her inability to leave her lover. Rather, while abstaining from any sexual relations himself, he tries to help Anna overcome her passion, and even nurses the servant in his own house when he becomes one of the many victims of a cholera epidemic.
Anna's lover does not survive the illness, but before she and Ethridge can get married Anna finds out that she is pregnant. Again, this does not deter Ethridge from loving her. They get married nevertheless but Ethridge insists on not consummating the marriage until after the birth of her child. When her son is born, Anna's maternal instinct overwhelms her and she is no longer willing to give her son away, as the couple planned during her pregnancy. However, seeing her beloved husband's suffering prolonged ad infinitum, she suffocates her baby, to emerge, after a year of repentance and making her peace with God, as the perfect partner in marriage for Ethridge.