Willard Geddie is the consul for the United States in tropical Coralio, “an insignificant town in an insignificant republic lying along the by-ways of a second-rate sea.” He has a girlfriend. Her name is Paula. He’s just written a report for the State Department about the country’s agricultural exports. No one will read it. He periodically takes delivery of a stack of English-language newspapers dropped by ship. He reads in “one of those bulky mattresses of printed stuff” that the 800-ton yacht Idalia is sailing with an an amorous couple, Miss Ida Payne and a Mr. Tolliver. Geddie and Ida used to be an item. Thy’d split, he’d taken the consulship to be as far away from he as he could, and for 12 months there they’d not exchanged a word. Tolliver “had not yet abandoned hope,” while he, Geddis, “had eaten the lotus. He was happy and content in this land of perpetual afternoon.” After he reads, he is shaken by the sight of the Idalia sailing by. Then shaken more by the sight of a bottle. And a message in a bottle. Yes, stories were once written as if they were bottles containing stories about messages in a bottle. He picks it up. He recognizes the sealing-wax inside, bearing the insignias of IP, Ida Payne. Recognizes her handwriting. He sets out three cigars to smoke them and decide what to do. He surmises the message is an attempt at reconciliation. He then goes off and proposes to Paula. She accepts. Then he throws the bottle into the sea, unopened. But wait: there is more. A “half-breed fisherman and smuggler” is woken up by the third mate on a ship that yells to him he’s just saved Geddie from drowning. The third mate saw Geddie a mile from shore, swimming after a bottle, and going under just as he was about to lay hand on it. He was saved. The bottle sailed on.
The languid simplicity of the story almost makes up for its brew of cliches and improbability. O’Henry is cutting his teeth.