RUDYARD KIPLING'S "Sea Constables: A Tale of ?5" was written in February and March 1915, and first published in Metropolitan Magazine (New York) in September 1915. In the following month, it appeared in Pall Mall Magagne, and was later collected in Kipling's Debits and Credits (1926). Joseph Conrad's "The Tale," written in autumn 1916, was first published in Strand Magagne m October 1917. It later appeared as a limited-edition pamphlet (1919), and, in book form, in the posthumous Tales of Hearsay (1926).
The background to both stories is a fact that could enrage even a temperate English person: the destruction of British, allied, and, outrageously, neutral vessels at sea during the Great War of 1914-19: in particular, the frequent destruction of unarmed merchant ships by German warships, notably submarines. Of course, some neutral vessels contravened the laws governing neutrality by providing supplies to such German warships. Both "Sea Constables" and "The Tale" concern naval patrols during the Great War; and, crucially, both concern the lethal treatment of the commander of a neutral ship by a British captain. In each case, the British officer, investigating that commander, becomes convinced that the man has been supplying German vessels.
Both tales use the "oblique narrative" convention, providing a tale within a tale. Naturally, the notable similarities in the stories expose the remarkable differences. In Kipling, the ending seems to be one of moral certitude: the British men discussing the matter seem predominantly convinced that in letting the neutral captain die, justice has been done. In Conrad, ambiguity is emphasized: the British officer is now unsure that he had done the right thing; what he has done seems, in a crucial respect, bizarrely illogical; and the nature of the outer narrative, depicting the emotional encounter of the commanding officer and a woman, seems to be shrouded in mystery. Fog shrouds the coast where the encounter between Conrad's British officer and the neutral "Northman" takes place; and obscurity of two kinds (the darkness of nightfall and the opacity of their situation) besets that portrayed relationship between the officer and the woman. Various clues suggest that the Northman's guilt is highly probable (though that, nevertheless, does not seem to justify the destruction of the entire crew of his vessel). The covert plot concerning the captain and the woman can, I believe, be construed as a matter of probability; though, given the marked reticence of the narrative, certainty may not be achievable, and might well, indeed, mar the nature of the work if the reader's imagination were to substitute promptly a clear story for a sustained exploration of the resistantly arcane. As I argued in The Deceptive Text: An Introduction to Covert Plots, we have to assess "the relative claims of the whole and the hole" (1984: 12).
The Kipling tale, which has deft characterization and shrewd descriptive details, may be summarized as follows. In spring 1915, several months after the start of the Great War, four men are dining in a luxurious hotel in London. Maddingham, Winchmore, and Portson are members of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). Evidently wealthy men, they have made their privately-owned vessels and themselves available for war-time patrol duties around the British coast. They discuss their close pursuit of a neutral vessel that they had suspected of supplying the Germans with Diesel oil. Their pursuit was so dogged, indeed, as to constitute harassment. Lieutenant Tegg, an officer in the Royal Navy who is the fourth diner in this group, explains why the Admiralty did not order the impounding of the neutral ship. The reasons are these: the captain's papers were in order; international law should be respected; "the national sense of fair play" operated; and there would have been political repercussions had the neutral officer not been treated well. That neutral captain, ill with pneumonia, had eventually anchored his ship in a small Irish harbour, and had begged Maddingham to take him to a doctor in London. …