This story chronicles the voyage by ship of a man from Charleston, South Carolina to New York.
On reviewing the passenger list before embarking on the voyage, our narrator sees the name of a friend named Cornelius Wyatt, and he is eager to meet Wyatt’s wife on the voyage, since Wyatt regularly spoke of her so glowingly. Upon meeting Mrs. Wyatt, however, she was found to be a very plain and unremarkable woman. They certainly seemed to be a very mismatched couple.
The ship’s departure was delayed for no good reason that was obvious to the narrator, but he did note that the ship set sail almost immediately after a box arrived at the wharf by cart – a very mysterious and oblong box.
The narrator deduced from the very few clues that were presented to him that the box belonged to his friend, Wyatt, and convinced himself that it contained a great work of art.
Having solved that little riddle, the narrator would have put the whole thing out of mind were it not for the strangely anti-social conduct of Wyatt and his sailing party – his wife and his two sisters.
While the women would sometimes come out on deck to socialize, Wyatt remained in his state room. When Wyatt eventually did emerge, the narrator monopolized his time and tried to get some information out of him regarding this mysterious box. When he insinuated that he knew what was in that oblong box, Wyatt lost control of himself and after an unsettling hysterical display, collapsed unconscious on the deck.
Our storyteller observed the comings and goings of Wyatt for the next little while and determined that he and his wife were, by all appearances, separated. Wyatt spent most of his time in his state room, and his wife spent most of her time in another, until Wyatt summoned her.
Before he could do anything more about it, the ship encountered a storm, which worsened into a hurricane. The ship took heavy damage in the storm and despite the best efforts of the crew and passengers, was taking on water, essentially a floating wreck. All hands had to abandon ship, leaving all but the barest essentials behind.
As they set adrift in a lifeboat, Wyatt would have none of it, demanding that the lifeboat be turned around, so that he could retrieve his oblong box. After arguing with the Captain, Wyatt jumped overboard to clamber back aboard the stricken vessel, unwilling to be separated from his box.
The rest of the story, I will leave to the reader to discover, but I can tell you the story’s conclusion is quite satisfying, and in Poe’s style, not everything is as it first appears to be.
I have a reasonably strong vocabulary, but at a few times in the story I felt myself wanting to reach for the dictionary. After the first page or so the language loosens up quite a bit and the reading is much more comfortable, so don’t let any reading difficulty dissuade you from this story. This is a good half-hour lunchtime read.