A PSYCHOLOGICAL SHIPWRECK
by Ambrose Bierce
In the summer of 1874 I was in Liverpool, whither
I had gone on business for the mercantile house
of Bronson & Jarrett, New York. I am William
Jarrett; my partner was Zenas Bronson. The firm
failed last year, and unable to endure the fall
from affluence to poverty he died.
Having finished my business, and feeling the
lassitude and exhaustion incident to its dispatch,
I felt that a protracted sea voyage would be both
agreeable and beneficial, so instead of embarking
for my return on one of the many fine passenger
steamers I booked for New York on the sailing
vessel Morrow, upon which I had shipped a large
and valuable invoice of the goods I had bought.
The Morrow was an English ship with, of course,
but little accommodation for passengers, of whom
there were only myself, a young woman and her
servant, who was a middle-aged negress. I thought
it singular that a traveling English girl should
be so attended, but she afterward explained to
me that the woman had been left with her family
by a man and his wife from South Carolina, both
of whom had died on the same day at the house
of the young lady's father in Devonshire--a
circumstance in itself sufficiently uncommon
to remain rather distinctly in my memory, even
had it not afterward transpired in conversation
with the young lady that the name of the man was
William Jarrett, the same as my own. I knew that
a branch of my family had settled in South
Carolina, but of them and their history I was
The Morrow sailed from the mouth of the Mersey
on the 15th of June and for several weeks we
had fair breezes and unclouded skies. The skipper,
an admirable seaman but nothing more, favored
us with very little of his society, except at
his table; and the young woman, Miss Janette
Harford, and I became very well acquainted. We
were, in truth, nearly always together, and
being of an introspective turn of mind I often
endeavored to analyze and define the novel
feeling with which she inspired me--a secret,
subtle, but powerful attraction which constantly
impelled me to seek her; but the attempt was
hopeless. I could only be sure that at least it
was not love. Having assured myself of this and
being certain that she was quite as whole-hearted,
I ventured one evening (I remember it was on the
3d of July) as we sat on deck to ask her,
laughingly, if she could assist me to resolve
my psychological doubt.
For a moment she was silent, with averted face,
and I began to fear I had been extremely rude
and indelicate; then she fixed her eyes gravely
on my own. In an instant my mind was dominated
by as strange a fancy as ever entered human
consciousness. It seemed as if she were looking
at me, not with, but through, those eyes--from
an immeasurable distance behind them--and that
a number of other persons, men, women and children,
upon whose faces I caught strangely familiar
evanescent expressions, clustered about her,
struggling with gentle eagerness to look at me
through the same orbs. Ship, ocean, sky--all
had vanished. I was conscious of nothing but
the figures in this extraordinary and fantastic
scene. Then all at once darkness fell upon me,
and anon from out of it, as to one who grows
accustomed by degrees to a dimmer light, my
former surroundings of deck and mast and cordage
slowly resolved themselves. Miss Harford had
closed her eyes and was leaning back in her
chair, apparently asleep, the book she had
been reading open in her lap. Impelled by
surely I cannot say what motive, I glanced
at the top of the page; it was a copy of that
rare and curious work, "Denneker's Meditations,"
and the lady's index finger rested on this
"To sundry it is given to be drawn away, and
to be apart from the body for a season; for,
as concerning rills which would flow across
each other the weaker is borne along by the
stronger, so there be certain of kin whose
paths intersecting, their souls do bear company,
the while their bodies go fore-appointed ways,
Miss Harford arose, shuddering; the sun had
sunk below the horizon, but it was not cold.
There was not a breath of wind; there were no
clouds in the sky, yet not a star was visible.
A hurried tramping sounded on the deck; the
captain, summoned from below, joined the first
officer, who stood looking at the barometer.
"Good God!" I heard him exclaim.
An hour later the form of Janette Harford,
invisible in the darkness and spray, was torn
from my grasp by the cruel vortex of the
sinking ship, and I fainted in the cordage
of the floating mast to which I had lashed
It was by lamplight that I awoke. I lay in
a berth amid the familiar surroundings of
the stateroom of a steamer. On a couch opposite
sat a man, half undressed for bed, reading
a book. I recognized the face of my friend
Gordon Doyle, whom I had met in Liverpool on
the day of my embarkation, when he was himself
about to sail on the steamer City of Prague,
on which he had urged me to accompany him.
After some moments I now spoke his name. He
simply said, "Well," and turned a leaf in his
book without removing his eyes from the page.
"Doyle," I repeated, "did they save her?"
He now deigned to look at me and smiled as
if amused. He evidently thought me but half
"Her? Whom do you mean?"
His amusement turned to amazement; he stared
at me fixedly, saying nothing.
"You will tell me after a while," I continued;
"I suppose you will tell me after a while."
A moment later I asked: "What ship is this?"
Doyle stared again. "The steamer City of Prague,
bound from Liverpool to New York, three weeks
out with a broken shaft. Principal passenger,
Mr. Gordon Doyle; ditto lunatic, Mr. William
Jarrett. These two distinguished travelers
embarked together, but they are about to part,
it being the resolute intention of the former
to pitch the latter overboard."
I sat bolt upright. "Do you mean to say that I
have been for three weeks a passenger on this
"Yes, pretty nearly; this is the 3d of July."
"Have I been ill?"
"Right as a trivet all the time, and punctual
at your meals."
"My God! Doyle, there is some mystery here;
do have the goodness to be serious. Was I not
rescued from the wreck of the ship Morrow?"
Doyle changed color, and approaching me, laid
his fingers on my wrist. A moment later, "What
do you know of Janette Harford?" he asked very
"First tell me what you know of her?"
Mr. Doyle gazed at me for some moments as if
thinking what to do, then seating himself again
on the couch, said:
"Why should I not? I am engaged to marry Janette
Harford, whom I met a year ago in London. Her
family, one of the wealthiest in Devonshire,
cut up rough about it, and we eloped--are eloping
rather, for on the day that you and I walked to
the landing stage to go aboard this steamer she
and her faithful servant, a negress, passed us,
driving to the ship Morrow. She would not consent
to go in the same vessel with me, and it had been
deemed best that she take a sailing vessel in
order to avoid observation and lessen the risk
of detection. I am now alarmed lest this cursed
breaking of our machinery may detain us so long
that the Morrow will get to New York before us,
and the poor girl will not know where to go."
I lay still in my berth--so still I hardly
breathed. But the subject was evidently not
displeasing to Doyle, and after a short pause he
"By the way, she is only an adopted daughter of
the Harfords. Her mother was killed at their
place by being thrown from a horse while hunting,
and her father, mad with grief, made away with
himself the same day. No one ever claimed the
child, and after a reasonable time they adopted
her. She has grown up in the belief that she is
"Doyle, what book are you reading?"
"Oh, it's called 'Denneker's Meditations.' It's
a rum lot, Janette gave it to me; she happened
to have two copies. Want to see it?"
He tossed me the volume, which opened as it fell.
On one of the exposed pages was a marked passage:
"To sundry it is given to be drawn away, and to
be apart from the body for a season; for, as
concerning rills which would flow across each
other the weaker is borne along by the stronger,
so there be certain of kin whose paths intersecting,
their souls do bear company, the while their
bodies go fore-appointed ways, unknowing."
"She had--she has--a singular taste in reading,"
I managed to say, mastering my agitation.
"Yes. And now perhaps you will have the kindness
to explain how you knew her name and that of the
ship she sailed in."
"You talked of her in your sleep," I said.
A week later we were towed into the port of New
York. But the Morrow was never heard from.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~