Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513
Twilight is falling through the window of a long, gloomy room. In the gathering darkness, a woman asks her companion, a man of the sea, for a tale. He begins, awkwardly, deliberately, reminding her that what he is about to relate is a story of duty, war, and horror.
During the early days of the “bad” war, a commanding officer—the narrator himself—is taking his ship past a dangerous rocky coast. The weather is foul, a thick, impenetrable fog obscuring the coast so that the commanding officer can see nothing and can only sense the danger before him. What he can see is small flotsam, perhaps cargo from a ship sunk by an enemy submarine reported to be near. The officer suspects that the cargo may be intended for the enemy, left there for the submarine by another ship. He knows that certain supposedly neutral ships have violated their neutrality for profit and that one of these may be close by.
As the fog thickens, the commanding officer orders the ship to be brought closer to land and to lower anchor in the shadow of the coast and wait for the weather to clear. Here he sees another ship, sitting quietly at anchor, as if in hiding. He begins to wonder if this ship is an innocent neutral or if, indeed, it is guilty of providing the submarine with supplies. Does it intend to sneak out when the fog lifts?
Alarmed yet puzzled by his suspicions, the commanding officer boards the mysterious cargo ship. The master, a Northman, is congenial, even loquacious. He insists he really is lost. The Northman tells his own tale, a brief account of his getting lost in the fog and of having engine failure. This voyage was his first in these waters. The ship is his own, providing a meager living for his family. The Northman’s tale is credible enough, but the commanding officer is unconvinced. Cleverly he implies that the Northman is making a profit from the war, but the Northman denies trading with the enemy, insisting that his cargo is bound for an English port.
Although the Northman has given a good account of himself—even his manifest is clear—the commanding officer is increasingly suspicious. Looking firmly into the Northman’s face, the commanding officer suddenly becomes convinced that this honest-seeming, slightly drunk captain has forged an enormous lie. Seeing no way out, convinced of some monstrous villainy, the commanding officer declares that he is letting the Northman go and orders him to steer south by southeast, which would take him past the rocks and into the safety of the open sea. Tired but trusting, the Northman steams off.
The commanding officer ends his tale here, but in a final summation to the woman in the darkening room he declares that the course he gave the Northman led not to safety but to destruction on the rocks. The Northman had been telling the truth; he had been lost. The commanding officer has been left bitter and despairing of never knowing the real truth.