Reading better to write better, day 9:
“The Tale” by Joseph Conrad
Yes, it is impossible to believe, till some day you see a ship not your own…but some other ship in company, blow up all of a sudden and plop under almost before you know what happened to her. Then you begin to believe. Henceforth you go out for the work to see—what you can see; and you keep on it with the conviction that some day you will die from something you have not seen.
A man and woman sit in a drawing room. The woman requests a tale, and after some back and forth—the man declines in a tone that suggests she may as well have asked the moon; she says he was a great storyteller before the war; he says he has only five days leave; she says it can be of another world—the man begins a tale of a Commanding Officer and a Northman in a war-ridden world.
The officer is the head of a naval ship whose task is to watch for trouble. It is portrayed as a nerve-wracking job: one without the certainties of the bloodstained battlefield. One that “pretends there is nothing wrong with the world,” and lulls into a false sense of security.
One day, the second in command sees something in the water. They steer closer to examine the object and look around for signs of wreckage. No wreck is found. The crew can only conjecture as to what the object is and who left it: could it have been left by one of the vessels rumored to be supplying the Germans? Eventually they excuse it—probably it was only some sloppy move on the part of a neutral ship.
But soon after the mysterious object a heavy fog rolls in and blinds the way. Gradually, at varying thinness in the fog, the ship inches for and weighs anchor in a familiar cove. There they will wait until the way is clear.
But when the fog dissipates a little they see another ship in the cove. It is right at the mouth: a miracle, the sailors murmur, that they did not strike her on the way in. A smaller boat is sent to investigate and reports that the other vessel is a neutral, but one they do not recognize. Their story, the scout reports, was one of engine trouble: they too had come to the cove seeking refuge. Nothing appears to be out of order, but the first and second in command debate amongst themselves of the surreptitious possibilities: if the other vessel is benign, why didn’t they give sign of life as they entered the cave? Surely they would have heard their ship. In fact, they passed so close to one another that the second in command wagers the crew on the other ship must have held their breath so as not to be heard.
The commanding officer decides to investigate himself. When he boards the unknown vessel he meets the other commanding figure: a robust Northman. The Northman repeats his story: that the fog has followed their ship for a week and rather disoriented him, and then on top of that they had engine trouble. The commanding officer voices doubts and rather bluntly accuses the Northman of supplying enemy submarines for profit—for which the punishment is death.
The Northman proclaims innocence, but the commanding officer is certain of guilt. When the Northman will confess nothing the c.o. orders the Northman’s vessel out within half an hour. “In this fog?” the Northman protests. The officer assures him not to worry, and gives him a specific course to help him navigate to port.
The course, the narrator concluded, would dash the Northman and his crew straight into the rocks. It was a test, and when the vessel crashed and went down it proved at least one truth: the Northman really hadn’t known where he was. But—somewhat bitterly, the narrator adds—it proved nothing of the crew’s guilt or innocence. And now he—yes, he, the narrator himself—would never know whether the murdered corpses that lay in the ocean bed because of him were innocent or guilty.
“It was a funny world and terribly in earnest.”
A story within a story is always intriguing. In this tale, in the beginning, the wife—the woman who asked the man to tell the story—is not a very good listener. She keeps interrupting him! Pipe down, lady—have some coffee or pie or gin if you must, but let the narrator narrate! But this device proves effective: as the story goes on, she fades away, and we become submersed. This a perfect set up for the symmetry that comes at the end: when the narrator steps back and reveals that he is the very Commanding Officer he speaks of. Well-played, Mr. Conrad. Well-played.
It was told very effectively, in such a way that I found myself looking along with the c.o. for signs of guilt in the Northman. There were a few suggestive hints (at one point the Northman admits that a poor man seeks to profit, but protests that he’d seek to do so at the price of aiding an enemy—he’d go mad with nerves, he says, or else lose himself in drink. He is, incidentally, rather drunk in this whole episode), but nothing conclusive.
This makes the ending—one of the best psychological endings I’ve seen in a story—even more effective: it leaves the reader haunted and disturbed, as the storyteller is, by an open-ended question that cannot be answered.
equable: not easily disturbed; calm and even-tempered
flippant: not showing a sincere/respectful attitude
fatuous: silly, pointless
complicity: involved with illegal activity or wrongdoing
Come back for another tale tomorrow!