The narrator, a man named William Jarrett, boards a ship called the Morrow bound for New York from England, which also carries a large invoice of valuable goods for his firm. The only other passengers are a young woman and her black servant. The servant had been left with the girl’s family when the servant’s masters, a man and a woman from South Carolina, had died. Peculiarly, they died on the same day as the young woman’s father. Oddest of all, the man was named William Jarrett, the same name as the narrator of the story.
The woman is named Janette Harford, and William soon finds himself strangely attracted to her. He is drawn to her, yet he is certain he is not in love with her, so one day he asks her to resolve his psychological doubt.
She gives him a strange look, as though she is gazing through him rather than at him. He has the feeling that many other men, women, and children are gazing at him through her eyes. All at once William comes back to his senses to find that night has fallen. Janette has fallen asleep, and he notices that she has a book open on her lap. It is entitled Denneker’s Meditations, and it is open to a passage describing the ability of people to leave their bodies and visit others.
Janette awakens, and though the night is still, the first officer exclaims when looking at the barometer. An hour later, William loses grasp of Janette’s hand as she is pulled down by the vortex of the sinking ship, and he faints in the grip of the mast to which he has tied himself.
He then awakes by lamplight, lying in a berth in a steamer. He recognizes the man next to him as Gordon Doyle, a man he had met in Liverpool. He asks Doyle if they managed to save her, but the other man only gazes at him with amusement. Gordon Doyle explains that they are on the City of Prague, a steamer bound from Liverpool. William Jarrett is stunned to learn that they departed three weeks ago.
William asks if he was not rescued from the wreck of the Morrow, and asks about Janettte Harford. Doyle is shocked at the name, and explains that he was engaged to marry her against the wishes of her family. She took the ship Morrow in order to avoid detection by her family. Doyle goes on to explain that she is only an adopted daughter of the Harfords, because her parents died when she was young and she was adopted by that distinguished family.
William asks what book Doyle is reading, and he replies that he is reading Denneker’s Meditations, which Janette had given him. William opens the book on the same passage that Janette was reading on the Morrow. A week later, Doyle and William arrive in New York, but the Morrow is never heard from again.
The story jolts the reader from scene to scene - at one moment, the narrator is attempting to pull the young woman from a shipwreck, but in the next, he finds himself aboard a comfortable steamer, and is informed that he has been there for some weeks. There does seem to be an element of reality to William's experience on board the Morrow, since the ship never arrives in port, which suggests that William's vision of the sinking ship and the death of Janette was an accurate reflection of reality.
The connections between the characters in this short story have puzzled readers since its initial publication in 1879. In particular, the relationship between William Jarrett and Janette Harford remains a mystery. He shares a name with a man who may be Janette's father (it is later revealed by Gordon Doyle that Janette was not born into the Harford family, but was instead adopted after the death of her parents), and has a singular attraction to the young woman.
Denneker's Meditations, the text that both Janette and Gordon Doyle are seen reading, is not a real book. The name of the author may be a reference to Jost de Negker (often spelled Denekker in nineteenth-century sources), an engraver who published a series of woodcuts entitled The Dance of Death.
The title of Denneker's Meditations may be a reference to Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the philosopher puzzles over the nature of consciousness and sense perception, arguing that it is possible to deceive someone by means of the senses, and that the only thing that can be trusted is one's own sense of reason. If Descartes' Meditations influenced this tale, it is possible that William was deceived into believing he was aboard the Morrow, perhaps because Janette wished to inform Gordon Doyle of her death.
Even the passage of the book that both Janette and Gordon Doyle were reading is hard to understand. “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” (46). This quote seems to indicate that souls can spend time together even if their bodies are not nearby, which suggests that William's presence on the Morrow was not a physical fact, but rather his spirit keeping company with Janette, with whom he had some sort of special connection.