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Requirements: Answer all questions throughly
How did Billy end up on the H.M.S. Bellipotent?  What is the significance of the name Bellipotent?  (Hint: what are the meanings of “bellicose” and “belligerent”?)  In composing Melville sometimes referred to this ship as the Indomitable. Why would he use either of these names for a war ship?
What does it mean for a sailor to be impressed?
What is Billy’s effect on the crew while on the Rights-of-Man?
Describe Billy and his background.  What is his one notable imperfection?
When does the book’s action take place?  Which two major countries are at war?  What has just occurred in the British navy?
Describe Captain Vere.  What sorts of books does he like to read?  Why does he oppose the “novel opinion social, political, and otherwise” that supported the French Revolution?
Describe John Claggart.  What is his duty on the ship?
What is Billy’s response when he sees a sailor being whipped for not doing his duty properly?
Who is the Dansker?  Why does he say that Claggart is “down” on Billy?  What proof does the Dansker have for his accusation?
Who, according to the narrator, are the most “dangerous” madmen?
What, according to the narrator, are the qualities of “Envy”?
In Chapter 14 why does a “stranger” contact Billy?
What is the Dansker’s interpretation of events in Chapter 14?
According to the narrator, how do sailors respond to orders?  What, according to the narrator, does “unobstructed free agency on equal terms” teach one?
In Chapter 18 what is the position of the H.M.S. Bellipotent in relation to the rest of the fleet?  What does Claggart relate to Captain Vere?  What is Captain Vere’s response?
What is Billy’s response to Claggart’s accusation against him?  What is Captain Vere’s response to that response?  What does Captain Vere mean when he says: “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang”?
What is the surgeon’s response to Captain Vere’s response?  What is the response of the lieutenants and captain of the marines?
Explain the narrator’s thoughts about “sanity and insanity.”
What is Billy’s response to Captain Vere’s account of events during the drumhead court?
To whom, according to Captain Vere, do sailors owe their allegiance?
According to Captain Vere should we trust our heads or our hearts?  What does he mean by “the feminine in man”?
What does Captain Vere say about private conscience?
What is Captain Vere’s view about Billy’s intent?
Why, according to Captain Vere, can’t Billy’s penalty be mitigated?
Why is the comparison to events on the Somers apt?
Why is “strict adherence to usage” observed in every “public” proceeding “growing out of the tragedy”?
What is Billy’s attitude toward death?
What are Billy’s final words?
What is unusual about Billy’s execution?
What does Captain Vere mean by: “With mankind . . . forms, measured forms, are everything”?
What does the narrator mean by “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges”?
How does Captain Vere die?
How are the events on H.M.S. Bellipotent reported in “News from the Mediterranean”?
Discussion Questions
Whether you agree with Captain Vere’s judgment of Billy or not, consider how you would counter his argument.
 
Is Captain Vere’s judgment right or wrong?  Is there an alternative position to Captain Vere being either right or wrong?  In the middle of wartime does a military officer have the luxury of considering alternative positions?
 
“For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible.  Our vowed responsibility is this: That however piteously that law may operate in any instances, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.”  Do you agree with Captain Vere or not?  Why or why not? 

In the Nuremberg Trials that tried Nazi war criminals after World War II, those on trial argued that they were innocent because they were simply following the laws and orders in force in their country.  Many were, nonetheless, convicted.  Is Captain Vere’s situation analogous or not?  Why or why not?  If not, how can we determine when we are responsible for the effects of the laws we administer and when we are not?
 
Billy is described as “innocent before God.”  What sort of innocence does Billy embody?  Is that sort of innocence an absolute good, or does it have weaknesses?  Would you like to have the innocence that Billy possesses?  Would you like your friends to have it?
 
One function of the law is to provide us with guidelines for making clear and unambiguous judgments.  What does Billy Budd teach us about the possibilities for such judgments in a world in which we are continually confronted with “double meanings and insinuations.” How should those writing and administering laws respond to a world in which “Truth” always has “ragged edges.”
 
Although not set in the United States, Billy Budd was written after the Civil War, and Melville paid close attention to the issues the war raised.  Indeed, Melville’s work of fiction can help us understand the complications of these and similar issues.  Please, therefore, use Billy Budd to discuss the dilemmas faced in the United States today as it continues its “war” against terrorism. How is the United States today balancing the needs for social order with its promise to protect civil liberties?  Is it allowing the President more unchecked power than a constitutional democracy should, or does the President need that power to protect the security of the nation?  What light can the dramatic action of Billy Budd shed on possible answers to those questions?
Billy BuddbyHerman MelvilleAn Electronic Classics Series Publication
Billy Budd by Herman Melville is a publication of The Electronic Classics Series. This PortableDocument file is furnished free and without any charge of any kind. Any person using thisdocument file, for any purpose, and in any way does so at his or her own risk. Neither thePennsylvania State University nor Jim Manis, Editor, nor anyone associated with the Pennsylva-nia State University assumes any responsibility for the material contained within the documentor for the file as an electronic transmission, in any way.Billy Budd by Herman Melville, The Electronic Classics Series, Jim Manis, Editor, PSU-Hazleton,Hazleton, PA 18202 is a Portable Document File produced as part of an ongoing publicationproject to bring classical works of literature, in English, to free and easy access of those wishingto make use of them.Jim Manis is a faculty member of the English Department of The Pennsylvania State University.This page and any preceding page(s) are restricted by copyright. The text of the following pagesare not copyrighted within the United States; however, the fonts used may be.Cover Design: Jim ManisCopyright © 2001 – 2012The Pennsylvania State University is an equal opportunity university.
3Herman MelvilleBilly BuddbyHerman MelvilleChapter 1In the time before steamships, or then more frequentlythan now, a stroller along the docks of any consid-erable sea-port would occasionally have his atten-tion arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant-sailors in holiday attire ashore onliberty. In certain instances they would flank, or, like abody-guard quite surround some superior figure of theirown class, moving along with them like Aldebaran amongthe lesser lights of his constellation. That signal objectwas the “Handsome Sailor” of the less prosaic time alikeof the military and merchant navies. With no perceptibletrace of the vainglorious about him, rather with the off-hand unaffectedness of natural regality, he seemed toaccept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates. A some-what remarkable instance recurs to me. In Liverpool, nowhalf a century ago, I saw under the shadow of the greatdingy street-wall of Prince’s Dock (an obstruction longsince removed) a common sailor, so intensely black thathe must needs have been a native African of the unadul-terate blood of Ham. A symmetric figure much above theaverage height. The two ends of a gay silk handkerchiefthrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayedebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold,and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set offhis shapely head.It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous withperspiration, beamed with barbaric good humor. In jovialsallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into herollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.These were made up of such an assortment of tribes andcomplexions as would have well fitted them to be marchedup by Anacharsis Cloots before the bar of the first French
4Billy BuddAssembly as Representatives of the Human Race. At eachspontaneous tribute rendered by the wayfarers to this blackpagod of a fellow- the tribute of a pause and stare, andless frequent an exclamation,—the motley retinue showedthat they took that sort of pride in the evoker of it whichthe Assyrian priests doubtless showed for their grand sculp-tured Bull when the faithful prostrated themselves.To return.If in some cases a bit of a nautical Murat in setting forthhis person ashore, the Handsome Sailor of the period inquestion evinced nothing of the dandified Billy-be-Damn,an amusing character all but extinct now, but occasion-ally to be encountered, and in a form yet more amusingthan the original, at the tiller of the boats on the tem-pestuous Erie Canal or, more likely, vaporing in thegroggeries along the tow-path. Invariably a proficient inhis perilous calling, he was also more or less of a mightyboxer or wrestler. It was strength and beauty. Tales of hisprowess were recited. Ashore he was the champion; afloatthe spokesman; on every suitable occasion always fore-most. Close-reefing top-sails in a gale, there he was,astride the weather yard-arm-end, foot in the Flemishhorse as “stirrup,” both hands tugging at the “earring”as at a bridle, in very much the attitude of young Alexandercurbing the fiery Bucephalus. A superb figure, tossed upas by the horns of Taurus against the thunderous sky,cheerily hallooing to the strenuous file along the spar.The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with thephysical make. Indeed, except as toned by the former,the comeliness and power, always attractive in masculineconjunction, hardly could have drawn the sort of honesthomage the Handsome Sailor in some examples receivedfrom his less gifted associates.Such a cynosure, at least in aspect, and something suchtoo in nature, though with important variations madeapparent as the story proceeds, was welkin-eyed BillyBudd, or Baby Budd, as more familiarly under circum-stances hereafter to be given he at last came to be called,aged twenty-one, a foretopman of the British fleet to-ward the close of the last decade of the eighteenth cen-tury. It was not very long prior to the time of the narra-tion that follows that he had entered the King’s Service,
5Herman Melvillehaving been impressed on the Narrow Seas from a home-ward-bound English merchantman into a seventy-fouroutward-bound, H.M.S. Indomitable; which ship, as wasnot unusual in those hurried days, having been obligedto put to sea short of her proper complement of men.Plump upon Billy at first sight in the gangway the board-ing officer Lieutenant Ratcliff pounced, even before themerchantman’s crew was formally mustered on the quar-ter-deck for his deliberate inspection. And him only heelected. For whether it was because the other men whenranged before him showed to ill advantage after Billy, orwhether he had some scruples in view of the merchant-man being rather short-handed, however it might be, theofficer contented himselfwith his first spontaneous choice.To the surprise of the ship’s company, though much tothe Lieutenant’s satisfaction, Billy made no demur. But,indeed, any demur would have been as idle as the protestof a goldfinch popped into a cage.Noting this uncomplaining acquiescence, all but cheer-ful one might say, the shipmates turned a surprised glanceof silent reproach at the sailor. The Shipmaster was oneof those worthy mortals found in every vocation, eventhe humbler ones- the sort of person whom everybodyagrees in calling “a respectable man.” And—nor so strangeto report as it may appear to be—though a ploughman ofthe troubled waters, life-long contending with the in-tractable elements, there was nothing this honest soul atheart loved better than simple peace and quiet. For therest, he was fifty or thereabouts, a little inclined to cor-pulence, a prepossessing face, unwhiskered, and of anagreeable color—a rather full face, humanely intelligentin expression. On a fair day with a fair wind and all goingwell, a certain musical chime in his voice seemed to bethe veritable unobstructed outcome of the innermost man.He had much prudence, much conscientiousness, and therewere occasions when these virtues were the cause of over-much disquietude in him. On a passage, so long as hiscraft was in any proximity to land, no sleep for CaptainGraveling. He took to heart those serious responsibilitiesnot so heavily borne by some shipmasters.Now while Billy Budd was down in the forecastle gettinghis kit together, the Indomitable’s Lieutenant, burly and
6Billy Buddbluff, nowise disconcerted by Captain Graveling’s omit-ting to proffer the customary hospitalities on an occa-sion so unwelcome to him, an omission simply caused bypreoccupation of thought, unceremoniously invited him-self into the cabin, and also to a flask from the spirit-locker, a receptacle which his experienced eye instantlydiscovered. In fact he was one of those sea-dogs in whomall the hardship and peril of naval life in the great pro-longed wars of his time never impaired the natural in-stinct for sensuous enjoyment. His duty he always faith-fully did; but duty is sometimes a dry obligation, and hewas for irrigating its aridity, whensoever possible, with afertilizing decoction of strong waters. For the cabin’s pro-prietor there was nothing left but to play the part of theenforced host with whatever grace and alacrity were prac-ticable. As necessary adjuncts to the flask, he silentlyplaced tumbler and water-jug before the irrepressibleguest. But excusing himself from partaking just then, hedismally watched the unembarrassed officer deliberatelydiluting his grog a little, then tossing it off in three swal-lows, pushing the empty tumbler away, yet not so far asto be beyond easy reach, at the same time settling him-self in his seat and smacking his lips with high satisfac-tion, looking straight at the host.These proceedings over, the Master broke the silence;and there lurked a rueful reproach in the tone of his voice:“Lieutenant, you are going to take my best man from me,the jewel of ‘em.”“Yes, I know,” rejoined the other, immediately drawingback the tumbler preliminary to a replenishing; “Yes, Iknow. Sorry.”“Beg pardon, but you don’t understand, Lieutenant. Seehere now. Before I shipped that young fellow, my fore-castle was a rat-pit of quarrels. It was black times, I tellyou, aboard the Rights here. I was worried to that degreemy pipe had no comfort for me. But Billy came; and itwas like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy.Not that he preached to them or said or did anything inparticular; but a virtue went out of him, sugaring thesour ones. They took to him like hornets to treacle; allbut the buffer of the gang, the big shaggy chap with thefire-red whiskers. He indeed out of envy, perhaps, of the
7Herman Melvillenewcomer, and thinking such a ‘sweet and pleasant fel-low,’ as he mockingly designated him to the others, couldhardly have the spirit of a game-cock, must needs bestirhimself in trying to get up an ugly row with him. Billyforebore with him and reasoned with him in a pleasantway- he is something like myself, Lieutenant, to whomaught like a quarrel is hateful- but nothing served. So, inthe second dog-watch one day the Red Whiskers in pres-ence of the others, under pretence of showing Billy justwhence a sirloin steak was cut- for the fellow had oncebeen a butcher- insultingly gave him a dig under theribs. Quick as lightning Billy let fly his arm. I dare say henever meant to do quite as much as he did, but anyhowhe gave the burly fool a terrible drubbing. It took abouthalf a minute, I should think. And, lord bless you, thelubber was astonished at the celerity. And will you be-lieve it, Lieutenant, the Red Whiskers now really lovesBilly- loves him, or is the biggest hypocrite that ever Iheard of. But theyall love him. Some of ‘em do his wash-ing, darn his old trousers for him; the carpenter is at oddtimes making a pretty little chest of drawers for him.Anybody will do anything for Billy Budd; and it’s the happyfamily here. But now, Lieutenant, if that young fellowgoes- I know how it will be aboard the Rights. Not againvery soon shall I, coming up from dinner, lean over thecapstan smoking a quiet pipe- no, not very soon again, Ithink. Ay, Lieutenant, you are going to take away thejewel of ‘em; you are going to take away my peacemaker!”And with that the good soul had really some ado in check-ing a rising sob.“Well,” said the officer who had listened with amusedinterest to all this, and now waxing merry with his tipple;“Well, blessed are the peacemakers, especially the fight-ing peacemakers! And such are the seventy- four beau-ties some of which you see poking their noses out of theport-holes of yonder war-ship lying-to for me,” pointingthro’ the cabin window at the Indomitable. “But courage!don’t look so downhearted, man. Why, I pledge you inadvance the royal approbation. Rest assured that HisMajesty will be delighted to know that in a time when hishard tack is not sought for by sailors with such avidity asshould be; a time also when some shipmasters privily
8Billy Buddresent the borrowing from them a tar or two for the ser-vice; His Majesty, I say, will be delighted to learn thatone shipmaster at least cheerfully surrenders to the King,the flower of his flock, a sailor who with equal loyaltymakes no dissent.- But where’s my beauty? Ah,” lookingthrough the cabin’s open door, “Here he comes; and, byJove- lugging along his chest- Apollo with his portman-teau!- My man,” stepping out to him, “you can’t takethat big box aboard a war-ship. The boxes there are mostlyshot-boxes. Put your duds in a bag, lad. Boot and saddlefor the cavalryman, bag and hammock for the man-of-war’s man.”The transfer from chest to bag was made. And, afterseeing his man into the cutter and then following himdown, the Lieutenant pushed off from the Rights-of-Man.That was the merchant-ship’s name; tho’ by her masterand crew abbreviated in sailor fashion into The Rights.The hard-headed Dundee owner was a staunch admirer ofThomas Paine whose book in rejoinder to Burke’s arraign-ment of the French Revolution had then been publishedfor some time and had gone everywhere. In christeninghis vessel after the title of Paine’s volume, the man ofDundee was something like his contemporary shipowner,Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, whose sympathies, alikewith his native land and its liberal philosophers, heevinced by naming his ships after Voltaire, Diderot, andso forth.But now, when the boat swept under the merchantman’sstern, and officer and oarsmen were noting- some bit-terly and others with a grin,- the name emblazoned there;just then it was that the new recruit jumped up from thebow where the coxswain had directed him to sit, andwaving his hat to his silent shipmates sorrowfully look-ing over at him from the taffrail, bade the lads a genialgood-bye. Then, making a salutation as to the ship her-self, “And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man.”“Down, Sir!” roared the Lieutenant, instantly assumingall the rigour of his rank, though with difficulty repress-ing a smile.To be sure, Billy’s action was a terrible breach of navaldecorum. But in that decorum he had never been in-structed; in consideration of which the Lieutenant would
9Herman Melvillehardly have been so energetic in reproof but for the con-cluding farewell to the ship. This he rather took as meantto convey a covert sally on the new recruit’s part, a slyslur at impressment in general, and that of himself inespecial. And yet, more likely, if satire it was in effect, itwas hardly so by intention, for Billy, tho’ happily en-dowed with the gayety of high health, youth, and a freeheart, was yet by no means of a satirical turn. The will toit and the sinister dexterity were alike wanting. To dealin double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quiteforeign to his nature.As to his enforced enlistment, that he seemed to takepretty much as he was wont to take any vicissitude ofweather. Like the animals, though no philosopher, he was,without knowing it, practically a fatalist. And, it may be,that he rather liked this adventurous turn in his affairs,which promised an opening into novel scenes and mar-tial excitements.Aboard the Indomitable our merchant-sailor was forth-with rated as an able-seaman and assigned to the star-board watch of the fore-top. He was soon at home in theservice, not at all disliked for his unpretentious goodlooks and a sort of genial happy-go-lucky air. No merrierman in his mess: in marked contrast to certain other in-dividuals included like himself among the impressed por-tion of the ship’s company; for these when not activelyemployed were sometimes, and more particularly in thelast dog-watch when the drawing near of twilight inducedrevery, apt to fall into a saddish mood which in somepartook of sullenness. But they were not so young as ourforetopman, and no few of them must have known a hearthof some sort; others may have had wives and childrenleft, too probably, in uncertain circumstances, and hardlyany but must have had acknowledged kith and kin, whilefor Billy, as will shortly be seen, his entire family waspractically invested in himself.
10Billy BuddChapter 2Though our new-made foretopman was well receivedin the top and on the gun decks, hardly here washe that cynosure he had previously been amongthose minor ship’s companies of the merchant marine,with which companies only had he hitherto consorted.He was young; and despite his all but fully developedframe, in aspect looked even younger than he really was,owing to a lingering adolescent expression in the as yetsmooth face, all but feminine in purity of natural com-plexion, but where, thanks to his seagoing, the lily wasquite suppressed and the rose had some ado visibly toflush through the tan.To one essentially such a novice in the complexities offactitious life, the abrupt transition from his former andsimpler sphere to the ampler and more knowing world ofa great war-ship; this might well have abashed him hadthere been any conceit or vanity in his composition.Among her miscellaneous multitude, the Indomitable mus-tered several individuals who, however inferior in grade,were of no common natural stamp, sailors more signallysusceptive of that air which continuous martial disciplineand repeated presence in battle can in some degree im-part even to the average man. As the Handsome Sailor,Billy Budd’s position aboard the seventy-four was some-thing analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplantedfrom the provinces and brought into competition withthe highborn dames of the court. But this change of cir-cumstances he scarce noted. As little did he observe thatsomething about him provoked an ambiguous smile inone or two harder faces among the blue-jackets. Nor lessunaware was he of the peculiar favorable effect his per-son and demeanour had upon the more intelligent gentle-men of the quarter-deck. Nor could this well have beenotherwise. Cast in a mould peculiar to the finest physicalexamples of those Englishmen in whom the Saxon strainwould seem not at all to partake of any Norman or otheradmixture, he showed in face that humane look of re-poseful good nature which the Greek sculptor in someinstances gave to his heroic strong man, Hercules. Butthis again was subtly modified by another and pervasive
11Herman Melvillequality. The ear, small and shapely, the arch of the foot,the curve in mouth and nostril, even the indurated handdyed to the orange-tawny of the toucan’s bill, a handtelling alike of the halyards and tar-bucket; but, aboveall, something in the mobile expression, and every chanceattitude and movement, something suggestive of a mothereminently favored by Love and the Graces; all this strangelyindicated a lineage in direct contradiction to his lot. Themysteriousness here became less mysterious through amatter- of-fact elicited when Billy, at the capstan, wasbeing formally mustered into the service. Asked by theofficer, a small brisk little gentleman, as it chanced amongother questions, his place of birth, he replied, “Please,Sir, I don’t know.”“Don’t know where you were born?—Who was your fa-ther?”“God knows, Sir.”Struck by the straightforward simplicity of these re-plies, the officer next asked, “Do you know anything aboutyour beginning?”“No, Sir. But I have heard that I was found in a prettysilklined basket hanging one morning from the knockerof a good man’s door in Bristol.”“Found say you? Well,” throwing back his head and look-ing up and down the new recruit; “Well, it turns out tohave been a pretty good find. Hope they’ll find somemore like you, my man; the fleet sadly needs them.”Yes, Billy Budd was a foundling, a presumable by-blow,and, evidently, no ignoble one. Noble descent was as evi-dent in him as in a blood horse.For the rest, with little or no sharpness of faculty orany trace of the wisdom of the serpent, nor yet quite adove, he possessed that kind and degree of intelligencegoing along with the unconventional rectitude of a soundhuman creature, one to whom not yet has been profferedthe questionable apple of knowledge. He was illiterate;he could not read, but he could sing, and like the illiter-ate nightingale was sometimes the composer of his ownsong.Of self-consciousness he seemed to have little ornone, or about as much as we may reasonably impute toa dog of Saint Bernard’s breed.Habitually living with the elements and knowing little
12Billy Buddmore of the land than as a beach, or, rather, that portionof the terraqueous globe providentially set apart for dance-houses, doxies and tapsters, in short what sailors call a“fiddlers’-green,” his simple nature remained unsophisti-cated by those moral obliquities which are not in everycase incompatible with that manufacturable thing knownas respectability. But are sailors, frequenters of “fiddlers’-greens,” without vices? No; but less often than withlandsmen do their vices, so called, partake of crooked-ness of heart, seeming less to proceed from viciousnessthan exuberance of vitality after long constraint; frankmanifestations in accordance with natural law. By hisoriginal constitution aided by the cooperating influencesof his lot, Billy in many respects was little more than asort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adampresumably might have been ere the urbane Serpentwriggled himself into his company.And here be it submitted that apparently going to cor-roborate the doctrine of man’s fall, a doctrine now popu-larly ignored, it is observable that where certain virtuespristine and unadulterate peculiarly characterize anybodyin the external uniform of civilization, they will uponscrutiny seem not to be derived from custom or conven-tion, but rather to be out of keeping with these, as ifindeed exceptionally transmitted from a period prior toCain’s city and citified man. The character marked by suchqualities has to an unvitiated taste an untampered-withflavor like that of berries, while the man thoroughly civi-lized, even in a fair specimen of the breed, has to thesame moral palate a questionable smack as of a com-pounded wine. To any stray inheritor of these primitivequalities found, like Caspar Hauser, wandering dazed inany Christian capital of our time, the good-natured poet’sfamous invocation, near two thousand years ago, of thegood rustic out of his latitude in the Rome of the Cesars,still appropriately holds:—“Honest and poor, faithful in word and thought,What has thee, Fabian, to the city brought?”Though our Handsome Sailor had as much of masculinebeauty as one can expect anywhere to see; nevertheless,like the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne’s minortales, there was just one thing amiss in him. No visible
13Herman Melvilleblemish, indeed, as with the lady; no, but an occasionalliability to a vocal defect. Though in the hour of elemen-tal uproar or peril he was everything that a sailor shouldbe, yet under sudden provocation of strong heart-feel-ing, his voice otherwise singularly musical, as if expres-sive of the harmony within, was apt to develop an or-ganic hesitancy, in fact, more or less of a stutter or evenworse. In this particular Billy was a striking instance thatthe arch interferer, the envious marplot of Eden, still hasmore or less to do with every human consignment to thisplanet of earth. In every case, one way or another he issure to slip in his little card, as much as to remind us- Itoo have a hand here.The avowal of such an imperfection in the HandsomeSailor should be evidence not alone that he is not pre-sented as a conventional hero, but also that the story inwhich he is the main figure is no romance.Chapter 3At the time of Billy Budd’s arbitrary enlistment intothe Indomitable that ship was on her way to jointhe Mediterranean fleet. No long time elapsedbefore the ‘unction was effected. As one of that fleet theseventy-four participated in its movements, tho’ at times,on account of her superior sailing qualities, in the ab-sence of frigates, despatched on separate duty as a scoutand at times on less temporary service. But with all thisthe story has little concernment, restricted as it is to theinner life of one particular ship and the career of an indi-vidual sailor.It was the summer of 1797. In the April of that yearhad occurred the commotion at Spithead followed in Mayby a second and yet more serious outbreak in the fleet atthe Nore. The latter is known, and without exaggerationin the epithet, as the Great Mutiny. It was indeed a dem-onstration more menacing to England than the contem-porary manifestoes and conquering and proselyting armiesof the French Directory.
14Billy BuddTo the British Empire the Nore Mutiny was what a strikein the fire-brigade would be to London threatened bygeneral arson. In a crisis when the kingdom might wellhave anticipated the famous signal that some years laterpublished along the naval line of battle what it was thatupon occasion England expected of Englishmen; that wasthe time when at the mast-heads of the three-deckersand seventy-fours moored in her own roadstead- a fleet,the right arm of a Power then all but the sole free conser-vative one of the Old World- the blue-jackets, to be num-bered by thousands, ran up with huzzas the British colorswith the union and cross wiped out; by that cancellationtransmuting the flag of founded law and freedom defined,into the enemy’s red meteor of unbridled and unboundedrevolt. Reasonable discontent growing out of practicalgrievances in the fleet had been ignited into irrationalcombustion, as by live cinders blown across the Channelfrom France in flames.The event converted into irony for a time those spiritedstrains of Dibdin- as a song-writer no mean auxiliary tothe English Government at the European conjuncture-strains celebrating, among other things, the patrioticdevotion of the British tar:“And as for my life, ’tis the King’s!”Such an episode in the Island’s grand naval story hernaval historians naturally abridge; one of them (G.P.R.James) candidly acknowledging that fain would he passit over did not “impartiality forbid fastidiousness.” Andyet his mention is less a narration than a reference, hav-ing to do hardly at all with details. Nor are these readilyto be found in the libraries. Like some other events inevery age befalling states everywhere, including America,the Great Mutiny was of such character that national pridealong with views of policy would fain shade it off intothe historical background. Such events can not be ig-nored, but there is a considerate way of historically treat-ing them. If a well-constituted individual refrains fromblazoning aught amiss or calamitous in his family, a na-tion in the like circumstance may without reproach beequally discreet.Though after parleyings between Government and theringleaders, and concessions by the former as to some
15Herman Melvilleglaring abuses, the first uprising- that at Spithead- withdifficulty was put down, or matters for the time pacified;yet at the Nore the unforeseen renewal of insurrection ona yet larger scale, and emphasized in the conferencesthat ensued by demands deemed by the authorities notonly inadmissible but aggressively insolent, indicated- ifthe Red Flag did not sufficiently do so- what was thespirit animating the men. Final suppression, however,there was; but only made possible perhaps by the un-swerving loyalty of the marine corps and voluntary re-sumption of loyalty among influential sections of thecrews.To some extent the Nore Mutiny may be regarded asanalogous to the distempering irruption of contagiousfever in a frame constitutionally sound, and which anonthrows it off.At all events, of these thousands of mutineers weresome of the tars who not so very long afterwards- whetherwholly prompted thereto by patriotism, or pugnaciousinstinct, or by both,- helped to win a coronet for Nelsonat the Nile, and the naval crown of crowns for him atTrafalgar. To the mutineers those battles, and especiallyTrafalgar, were a plenary absolution and a grand one: Forall that goes to make up scenicnaval display, heroic mag-nificence in arms, those battles, especially Trafalgar, standunmatched in human annals.
16Billy BuddChapter 4Concerning “The greatest sailor since our world began.”—TennysonIn this matter of writing, resolve as one may to keepto the main road, some by-paths have an entice-ment not readily to be withstood. I am going to errinto such a by-path. If the reader will keep me companyI shall be glad. At the least we can promise ourselvesthat pleasure which is wickedly said to be in sinning, fora literary sin the divergence will be.Very likely it is no new remark that the inventions of ourtime have at last brought about a change in sea-warfare indegree corresponding to the revolution in all warfare ef-fected by the original introduction from China into Europeof gunpowder. The first European fire-arm, a clumsy con-trivance, was, as is well known, scouted by no few of theknights as a base implement, good enough peradventurefor weavers too craven to stand up crossing steel withsteel in frank fight. But as ashore, knightly valor, tho’ shornof its blazonry, did not cease with the knights, neither onthe seas, though nowadays in encounters there a certainkind of displayed gallantry be fallen out of date as hardlyapplicable under changed circumstances, did the noblerqualities of such naval magnates as Don John of Austria,Doria, Van Tromp, Jean Bart, the long line of British Admi-rals and the American Decaturs of 1812 become obsoletewith their wooden walls.Nevertheless, to anybody who can hold the Present at itsworth without being inappreciative of the Past, it may beforgiven, if to such an one the solitary old hulk at Ports-mouth, Nelson’s Victory, seems to float there, not alone asthe decaying monument of a fame incorruptible, but alsoas a poetic reproach, softened by its picturesqueness, tothe Monitors and yet mightier hulls of the Europeanironclads. And this not altogether because such craft areunsightly, unavoidably lacking the symmetry and grand linesof the old battle-ships, but equally for other reasons.There are some, perhaps, who while not altogether in-accessible to that poetic reproach just alluded to, mayyet on behalf of the new order, be disposed to parry it;
17Herman Melvilleand this to the extent of iconoclasm, if need be. Forexample, prompted by the sight of the star inserted inthe Victory’s quarter-deck designating the spot where theGreat Sailor fell, these martial utilitarians may suggestconsiderations implying that Nelson’s ornate publicationof his person in battle was not only unnecessary, but notmilitary, nay, savored of foolhardiness and vanity. Theymay add, too, that at Trafalgar it was in effect nothingless than a challenge to death; and death came; and thatbut for his bravado the victorious Admiral might possiblyhave survived the battle; and so, instead of having hissagacious dying injunctions overruled by his immediatesuccessor in command, he himself, when the contest wasdecided, might have brought his shattered fleet to an-chor, a proceeding which might have averted the deplor-able loss of life by shipwreck in the elemental tempestthat followed the martial one.Well, should we set aside the more disputable pointwhether for various reasons it was possible to anchor thefleet, then plausibly enough the Benthamites of war mayurge the above.But the might-have-been is but boggy ground to buildon. And, certainly, in foresight as to the larger issue ofan encounter, and anxious preparations for it—buoyingthe deadly way and mapping it out, as at Copenhagen—few commanders have been so painstakingly circumspectas this same reckless declarer of his person in fight.Personal prudence even when dictated by quite otherthan selfish considerations surely is no special virtue in amilitary man; while an excessive love of glory, impas-sioning a less burning impulse, the honest sense of duty,is the first. If the name Wellington is not so much of atrumpet to the blood as the simpler name Nelson, thereason for this may perhaps be inferred from the above.Alfred in his funeral ode on the victor of Waterloo ven-tures not to call him the greatest soldier of all time, tho’in the same ode he invokes Nelson as “the greatest sailorsince our world began.”At Trafalgar, Nelson, on the brink of opening the fight,sat down and wrote his last brief will and testament. Ifunder the presentiment of the most magnificent of allvictories to be crowned by his own glorious death, a sort
18Billy Buddof priestly motive led him to dress his person in the jew-elled vouchers of his own shining deeds; if thus to haveadorned himself for the altar and the sacrifice were in-deed vainglory, then affectation and fustian is each moreheroic line in the great epics and dramas, since in suchlines the poet but embodies in verse those exaltations ofsentiment that a nature like Nelson, the opportunity be-ing given, vitalizes into acts.Chapter 5Yes, the outbreak at the Nore was put down. Butnot every grievance was redressed. If the contrac-tors, for example, were no longer permitted to plysome practices peculiar to their tribe everywhere, such asproviding shoddy cloth, rations not sound, or false in themeasure, not the less impressment, for one thing, wenton. By custom sanctioned for centuries, and judiciallymaintained by a Lord Chancellor as late as Mansfield,that mode of manning the fleet, a mode now fallen into asort of abeyance but never formally renounced, it wasnot practicable to give up in those years. Its abrogationwould have crippled the indispensable fleet, one whollyunder canvas, no steam-power, its innumerable sails andthousands of cannon, everything in short, worked bymuscle alone; a fleet the more insatiate in demand formen, because then multiplying its ships of all gradesagainst contingencies present and to come of the con-vulsed Continent.Discontent foreran the Two Mutinies, and more or less
19Herman Melvilleit lurkingly survived them. Hence it was not unreason-able to apprehend some return of trouble, sporadic orgeneral. One instance of such apprehensions: In the sameyear with this story, Nelson, then Vice-Admiral Sir Horatio,being with the fleet off the Spanish coast, was directedby the Admiral in command to shift his pennant from theCaptain to the Theseus; and for this reason: that the lat-ter ship having newly arrived on the station from homewhere it had taken part in the Great Mutiny, danger wasapprehended from the temper of the men; and it wasthought that an officer like Nelson was the one, not in-deed to terrorize the crew into base subjection, but towin them, by force of his mere presence, back to an alle-giance if not as enthusiastic as his own, yet as true. So itwas that for a time on more than one quarter-deck anxi-ety did exist. At sea precautionary vigilance was strainedagainst relapse. At short notice an engagement mightcome on. When it did, the lieutenants assigned to batter-ies felt it incumbent on them, in some instances, to standwith drawn swords behind the men working the guns.Chapter 6But on board the seventy-four in which Billy nowswung his hammock, very little in the manner ofthe men and nothing obvious in the demeanourof the officers would have suggested to an ordinary ob-server that the Great Mutiny was a recent event. In theirgeneral bearing and conduct the commissioned officersof a warship naturally take their tone from the Commander,that is if he have that ascendancy of character that oughtto be his.Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, to give hisfull title, was a bachelor of forty or thereabouts, a sailorof distinction even in a time prolific of renowned sea-men. Though allied to the higher nobility, his advance-ment had not been altogether owing to influences con-nected with that circumstance. He had seen much ser-vice, been in various engagements, always acquitting him-self as an officer mindful of the welfare of his men, butnever tolerating an infraction of discipline; thoroughlyversed in the science of his profession, and intrepid to
20Billy Buddthe verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so. Forhis gallantry in the West Indian waters as Flag-Lieuten-ant under Rodney in that Admiral’s crowning victory overDe Grasse, he was made a Post-Captain.Ashore in the garb of a civilian, scarce anyone wouldhave taken him for a sailor, more especially that he nevergarnished unprofessional talk with nautical terms, andgrave in his bearing, evinced little appreciation of merehumor. It was not out of keeping with these traits thaton a passage when nothing demanded his paramount ac-tion, he was the most undemonstrative of men. Anylandsman observing this gentleman, not conspicuous byhis stature and wearing no pronounced insignia, emerg-ing from his cabin to the open deck, and noting the si-lent deference of the officers retiring to leeward, mighthave taken him for the King’s guest, a civilian aboard theKing’s-ship, some highly honorable discreet envoy on hisway to an important post. But in fact this unobtrusivenessof demeanour may have proceeded from a certain unaf-fected modesty of manhood sometimes accompanying aresolute nature, a modesty evinced at all times not call-ing for pronounced action, and which shown in any rankof life suggests a virtue aristocratic in kind.As with some others engaged in various departments ofthe world’s more heroic activities, Captain Vere, thoughpractical enough upon occasion, would at times betray acertain dreaminess of mood. Standing alone on the weather-side of the quarter-deck, one hand holding by the rigging,he would absently gaze off at the blank sea. At the presen-tation to him then of some minor matter interrupting thecurrent of his thoughts he would show more or less irasci-bility; but instantly he would control it.In the navy he was popularly known by the appella-tion- Starry Vere. How such a designation happened tofall upon one who, whatever his sterling qualities, waswithout any brilliant ones was in this wise: A favoritekinsman, Lord Denton, a free-hearted fellow, had beenthe first to meet and congratulate him upon his return toEngland from his West Indian cruise; and but the dayprevious turning over a copy of Andrew Marvell’s poems,had lighted, not for the first time however, upon thelines entitled Appleton House, the name of one of the
21Herman Melvilleseats of their common ancestor, a hero in the Germanwars of the seventeenth century, in which poem occurthe lines,“This ’tis to have been from the firstIn a domestic heaven nursed,Under the discipline severeOf Fairfax and the starry Vere.”And so, upon embracing his cousin fresh from Rodney’sgreat victory wherein he had played so gallant a part,brimming over with just family pride in the sailor of theirhouse, he exuberantly exclaimed, “Give ye joy, Ed; giveye joy, my starry Vere!” This got currency, and the novelprefix serving in familiar parlance readily to distinguishthe Indomitable’s Captain from another Vere his senior, adistant relative, an officer of like rank in the navy, itremained permanently attached to the surname.Chapter 7In view of the part that the Commander of the In-domitable plays in scenes shortly to follow, it maybe well to fill out that sketch of his outlined in theprevious chapter.Aside from his qualities as a sea-officer, Captain Verewas an exceptional character. Unlike no few of England’srenowned sailors, long and arduous service with signaldevotion to it, had not resulted in absorbing and saltingthe entire man. He had a marked leaning toward every-thing intellectual. He loved books, never going to seawithout a newly replenished library, compact but of thebest. The isolated leisure, in some cases so wearisome,falling at intervals to commanders even during a war-cruise, never was tedious to Captain Vere. With nothingof that literary taste which less heeds the thing con-veyed than the vehicle, his bias was toward those booksto which every serious mind of superior order occupyingany active post of authority in the world naturally in-clines; books treating of actual men and events no mat-
22Billy Buddter of what era—history, biography and unconventionalwriters, who, free from cant and convention, likeMontaigne, honestly and in the spirit of common sensephilosophize upon realities.In this line of reading he found confirmation of hisown more reasoned thoughts—confirmation which he hadvainly sought in social converse, so that as touching mostfundamental topics, there had got to be established inhim some positive convictions, which he forefelt wouldabide in him essentially unmodified so long as his intel-ligent part remained unimpaired. In view of the troubledperiod in which his lot was cast this was well for him. Hissettled convictions were as a dyke against those invad-ing waters of novel opinion, social, political and other-wise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds inthose days, minds by nature not inferior to his own. Whileother members of that aristocracy to which by birth hebelonged were incensed at the innovators mainly becausetheir theories were inimical to the privileged classes, notalone Captain Vere disinterestedly opposed them becausethey seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lastinginstitutions, but at war with the peace of the world andthe true welfare of mankind.With minds less stored than his and less earnest, someofficers of his rank, with whom at times he would neces-sarily consort, found him lacking in the companionablequality, a dry and bookish gentleman, as they deemed.Upon any chance withdrawal from their company onewould be apt to say to another, something like this: “Vereis a noble fellow, Starry Vere. Spite the gazettes, SirHoratio” (meaning him with the Lord title) “is at bottomscarce a better seaman or fighter. But between you andme now, don’t you think there is a queer streak of thepedantic running thro’ him? Yes, like the King’s yarn in acoil of navy-rope?”Some apparent ground there was for this sort of confi-dential criticism; since not only did the Captain’s dis-course never fall into the jocosely familiar, but in illus-trating of any point touching the stirring personages andevents of the time he would be as apt to cite some his-toric character or incident of antiquity as that he wouldcite from the moderns. He seemed unmindful of the cir-
23Herman Melvillecumstance that to his bluff company such remote allu-sions, however pertinent they might really be, were alto-gether alien to men whose reading was mainly confinedto the journals. But considerateness in such matters isnot easy to natures constituted like Captain Vere’s. Theirhonesty prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flightnever heeds when it crosses a frontier.Chapter 8The lieutenants and other commissioned gentlemenforming Captain Vere’s staff it is not necessary hereto particularize, nor needs it to make any mentionof any of the warrant-officers. But among the petty-of-ficers was one who having much to do with the story,may as well be forthwith introduced. His portrait I essay,but shall never hit it. This was John Claggart, the Mas-ter-at-arms. But that sea-title may to landsmen seemsomewhat equivocal. Originally, doubtless, that petty-officer’s function was the instruction of the men in theuse of arms, sword or cutlas. But very long ago, owing tothe advance in gunnery making hand-to-hand encoun-ters less frequent and giving to nitre and sulphur thepreeminence over steel, that function ceased; the Mas-ter-at-arms of a great war-ship becoming a sort of Chiefof Police, charged among other matters with the duty ofpreserving order on the populous lower gun decks.Claggart was a man about five and thirty, somewhatspare and tall, yet of no ill figure upon the whole. His
24Billy Buddhand was too small and shapely to have been accustomedto hard toil. The face was a notable one; the features allexcept the chin cleanly cut as those on a Greek medal-lion; yet the chin, beardless as Tecumseh’s, had some-thing of strange protuberant heaviness in its make thatrecalled the prints of the Rev. Dr. Titus Oates, the historicdeponent with the clerical drawl in the time of Charles IIand the fraud of the alleged Popish Plot. It served Claggartin his office that his eye could cast a tutoring glance. Hisbrow was of the sort phrenologically associated with morethan average intellect; silken jet curls partly clusteringover it, making a foil to the pallor below, a pallor tingedwith a faint shade of amber akin to the hue of time-tinted marbles of old. This complexion, singularly con-trasting with the red or deeply bronzed visages of thesailors, and in part the result of his official seclusionfrom the sunlight, tho’ it was not exactly displeasing,nevertheless seemed to hint of something defective orabnormal in the constitution and blood. But his generalaspect and manner were so suggestive of an educationand career incongruous with his naval function that whennot actively engaged in it he looked a man of high qual-ity, social and moral, who for reasons of his own waskeeping incog. Nothing was known of his former life. Itmight be that he was an Englishman; and yet there lurkeda bit of accent in his speech suggesting that possibly hewas not such by birth, but through naturalization in earlychildhood. Among certain grizzled sea- gossips of thegun decks and forecastle went a rumor perdue that theMaster-at-arms was a chevalier who had volunteered intothe King’s Navy by way of compounding for some myste-rious swindle whereof he had been arraigned at the King’sBench. The fact that nobody could substantiate this re-port was, of course, nothing against its secret currency.Such a rumor once started on the gun decks in referenceto almost anyone below the rank of a commissioned of-ficer would, during the period assigned to this narrative,have seemed not altogether wanting in credibility to thetarry old wiseacres of a man-of-war crew. And indeed aman of Claggart’s accomplishments, without prior nauti-cal experience, entering the navy at mature life, as hedid, and necessarily allotted at the start to the lowest
25Herman Melvillegrade in it; a man, too, who never made allusion to hisprevious life ashore; these were circumstances which inthe dearth of exact knowledge as to his true antecedentsopened to the invidious a vague field for unfavorablesurmise.But the sailors’ dog-watch gossip concerning him de-rived a vague plausibility from the fact that now for someperiod the British Navy could so little afford to be squea-mish in the matter of keeping up the muster- rolls, thatnot only were press-gangs notoriously abroad both afloatand ashore, but there was little or no secret about an-other matter, namely that the London police were at lib-erty to capture any able-bodied suspect, any question-able fellow at large and summarily ship him to dockyardor fleet. Furthermore, even among voluntary enlistmentsthere were instances where the motive thereto partookneither of patriotic impulse nor yet of a random desire toexperience a bit of sea-life and martial adventure. Insol-vent debtors of minor grade, together with the promiscu-ous lame ducks of morality found in the Navy a conve-nient and secure refuge. Secure, because once enlistedaboard a King’s-ship, they were as much in sanctuary, asthe transgressor of the Middle Ages harboring himselfunder the shadow of the altar. Such sanctioned irregu-larities, which for obvious reasons the Government wouldhardly think to parade at the time, and which conse-quently, and as affecting the least influential class ofmankind, have all but dropped into oblivion, lend colorto something for the truth whereof I do not vouch, andhence have some scruple in stating; something I remem-ber having seen in print, though the book I can not re-call; but the same thing was personally communicated tome now more than forty years ago by an old pensioner ina cocked hat with whom I had a most interesting talk onthe terrace at Greenwich, a Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgarman. It was to this effect: In the case of a war-ship shortof hands whose speedy sailing was imperative, the defi-cient quota in lack of any other way of making it good,would be eked out by draughts culled direct from thejails. For reasons previously suggested it would not per-haps be easy at the present day directly to prove or dis-prove the allegation. But allowed as a verity, how signifi-
26Billy Buddcant would it be of England’s straits at the time, con-fronted by those wars which like a flight of harpies roseshrieking from the din and dust of the fallen Bastille.That era appears measurably clear to us who look back atit, and but read of it. But to the grandfathers of usgraybeards, the more thoughtful of them, the genius of itpresented an aspect like that of Camoëns’ Spirit of theCape, an eclipsing menace mysterious and prodigious.Not America was exempt from apprehension. At the heightof Napoleon’s unexampled conquests, there were Ameri-cans who had fought at Bunker Hill who looked forwardto the possibility that the Atlantic might prove no barrieragainst the ultimate schemes of this French upstart fromthe revolutionary chaos who seemed in act of fulfillingjudgement prefigured in the Apocalypse.But the less credence was to be given to the gun-decktalk touching Claggart, seeing that no man holding hisoffice in a man-of-war can ever hope to be popular withthe crew. Besides, in derogatory comments upon anyoneagainst whom they have a grudge, or for any reason or noreason mislike, sailors are much like landsmen; they areapt to exaggerate or romance it.About as much was really known to the Indomitable’stars of the Master-at-arms’ career before entering theservice as an astronomer knows about a comet’s travelsprior to its first observable appearance in the sky. Theverdict of the sea quid-nuncs has been cited only by wayof showing what sort of moral impression the man madeupon rude uncultivated natures whose conceptions ofhuman wickedness were necessarily of the narrowest, lim-ited to ideas of vulgar rascality,—a thief among the swing-ing hammocks during a night-watch, or the man brokersand land-sharks of the sea-ports.It was no gossip, however, but fact, that though, asbefore hinted, Claggart upon his entrance into the navywas, as a novice, assigned to the least honourable sec-tion of a man-of-war’s crew, embracing the drudgery, hedid not long remain there.The superior capacity he immediately evinced, his con-stitutional sobriety, ingratiating deference to superiors,together with a peculiar ferreting genius manifested on asingular occasion; all this capped by a certain austere
27Herman Melvillepatriotism abruptly advanced him to the position of Mas-ter-at-arms.Of this maritime Chief of Police the ship’s-corporals, socalled, were the immediate subordinates, and compliantones; and this, as is to be noted in some business de-partments ashore, almost to a degree inconsistent withentire moral volition. His place put various convergingwires of underground influence under the Chief’s control,capable when astutely worked thro’ his understrappers,of operating to the mysterious discomfort, if nothingworse, of any of the sea-commonalty.Chapter 9Life in the fore-top well agreed with Billy Budd. There,when not actually engaged on the yards yet higheraloft, the topmen, who as such had been pickedout for youth and activity, constituted an aerial club loung-ing at ease against the smaller stun’sails rolled up intocushions, spinning yarns like the lazy gods, and frequentlyamused with what was going on in the busy world of thedecks below. No wonder then that a young fellow of Billy’sdisposition was well content in such society. Giving nocause of offence to anybody, he was always alert at acall. So in the merchant service it had been with him.But now such a punctiliousness in duty was shown thathis topmates would sometimes good-naturedly laugh athim for it. This heightened alacrity had its cause, namely,the impression made upon him by the first formal gang-way-punishment he had ever witnessed, which befell theday following his impressment. It had been incurred by alittle fellow, young, a novice, an afterguardsman absentfrom his assigned post when the ship was being put about;
28Billy Budda dereliction resulting in a rather serious hitch to thatmanoeuvre, one demanding instantaneous promptitudein letting go and making fast. When Billy saw the culprit’snaked back under the scourge gridironed with red welts,and worse; when he marked the dire expression on theliberated man’s face as with his woolen shirt flung overhim by the executioner he rushed forward from the spotto bury himself in the crowd, Billy was horrified. He re-solved that never through remissness would he make him-self liable to such a visitation or do or omit aught thatmight merit even verbal reproof. What then was his sur-prise and concern when ultimately he found himself get-ting into petty trouble occasionally about such mattersas the stowage of his bag or something amiss in his ham-mock, matters under the police oversight of the ship’s-corporals of the lower decks, and which brought down onhim a vague threat from one of them.So heedful in all things as he was, how could this be?He could not understand it, and it more than vexed him.When he spoke to his young topmates about it they wereeither lightly incredulous or found something comical inhis unconcealed anxiety. “Is it your bag, Billy?” said one.“Well, sew yourself up in it, bully boy, and then you’ll besure to know if anybody meddles with it.”Now there was a veteran aboard who because his yearsbegan to disqualify him for more active work had beenrecently assigned duty as mainmastman in his watch, look-ing to the gear belayed at the rail roundabout that greatspar near the deck. At off-times the Foretopman had pickedup some acquaintance with him, and now in his troubleit occurred to him that he might be the sort of person togo to for wise counsel. He was an old Dansker long angli-cized in the service, of few words, many wrinkles andsome honorable scars. His wizened face, time-tinted andweather-stained to the complexion of an antique parch-ment, was here and there peppered blue by the chanceexplosion of a gun-cartridge in action.He was an Agamemnon man; some two years prior tothe time of this story having served under Nelson, whenbut Sir Horatio, in that ship immortal in naval memory,and which, dismantled and in part broken up to her bareribs, is seen a grand skeleton in Haydon’s etching. As one
29Herman Melvilleof a boarding-party from the Agamemnon he had receiveda cut slantwise along one temple and cheek, leaving along scar like a streak of dawn’s light falling athwart thedark visage. It was on account of that scar and the affairin which it was known that he had received it, as well asfrom his blue-peppered complexion, that the Dansker wentamong the Indomitable’s crew by the name of “Board-her-in-the-smoke.”Now the first time that his small weazel-eyes happenedto light on Billy Budd, a certain grim internal merrimentset all his ancient wrinkles into antic play. Was it that hiseccentric unsentimental old sapience, primitive in its kind,saw or thought it saw something which, in contrast withthe war-ship’s environment, looked oddly incongruous inthe Handsome Sailor? But after slyly studying him at inter-vals, the old Merlin’s equivocal merriment was modified;for now when the twain would meet, it would start in hisface a quizzing sort of look, but it would be but momen-tary and sometimes replaced by an expression of specula-tive query as to what might eventually befall a nature likethat, dropped into a world not without some man—trapsand against whose subtleties simple courage, lacking ex-perience and address and without any touch of defensiveugliness, is of little avail; and where such innocence asman is capable of does yet in a moral emergency not al-ways sharpen the faculties or enlighten the will.However it was, the Dansker in his ascetic way rathertook to Billy. Nor was this only because of a certain philo-sophic interest in such a character. There was anothercause. While the old man’s eccentricities, sometimes bor-dering on the ursine, repelled the juniors, Billy, unde-terred thereby, revering him as a salt hero, would makeadvances, never passing the old Agamemnon man with-out a salutation marked by that respect which is seldomlost on the aged however crabbed at times or whatevertheir station in life.There was a vein of dry humor, or what not, in themast-man; and, whether in freak of patriarchal irony touch-ing Billy’s youth and athletic frame, or for some otherand more recondite reason, from the first in addressinghim he always substituted Baby for Billy. The Dansker infact being the originator of the name by which the
30Billy BuddForetopman eventually became known aboard ship.Well then, in his mysterious little difficulty, going inquest of the wrinkled one, Billy found him off duty in adog-watch ruminating by himself, seated on a shot-boxof the upper gun deck, now and then surveying with asomewhat cynical regard certain of the more swaggeringpromenaders there. Billy recounted his trouble, againwondering how it all happened. The salt seer attentivelylistened, accompanying the Foretopman’s recital withqueer twitchings of his wrinkles and problematical littlesparkles of his small ferret eyes. Making an end of hisstory, the Foretopman asked, “And now, Dansker, do tellme what you think of it.”The old man, shoving up the front of his tarpaulin anddeliberately rubbing the long slant scar at the point whereit entered the thin hair, laconically said, “Baby Budd,Jimmy Legs” (meaning the Master- at-arms) “is down onyou.”“Jimmy Legs!” ejaculated Billy, his welkin eyes expand-ing; “what for? Why he calls me the sweet and pleasantfellow, they tell me.”“Does he so?” grinned the grizzled one; then said, “Ay,Baby Lad, a sweet voice has Jimmy Legs.”“No, not always. But to me he has. I seldom pass himbut there comes a pleasant word.”“And that’s because he’s down upon you, Baby Budd.”Such reiteration along with the manner of it, incom-prehensible to a novice, disturbed Billy almost as muchas the mystery for which he had sought explanation. Some-thing less unpleasingly oracular he tried to extract; butthe old sea-Chiron, thinking perhaps that for the noncehe had sufficiently instructed his young Achilles, pursedhis lips, gathered all his wrinkles together and wouldcommit himself to nothing further.Years, and those experiences which befall certainshrewder men subordinated life-long to the will of supe-riors, all this had developed in the Dansker the pithyguarded cynicism that was his leading characteristic.
31Herman MelvilleChapter 10The next day an incident served to confirm BillyBudd in his incredulity as to the Dansker’s strangesumming-up of the case submitted. The ship atnoon, going large before the wind, was rolling on hercourse, and he, below at dinner and engaged in somesportful talk with the members of his mess, chanced in asudden lurch to spill the entire contents of his soup-panupon the new scrubbed deck. Claggart, the Master-at-arms, official rattan in hand, happened to be passingalong the battery in a bay of which the mess was lodged,and the greasy liquid streamed just across his path. Step-ping over it, he was proceeding on his way without com-ment, since the matter was nothing to take notice ofunder the circumstances, when he happened to observewho it was that had done the spilling. His countenancechanged. Pausing, he was about to ejaculate somethinghasty at the sailor, but checked himself, and pointingdown to the streaming soup, playfully tapped him frombehind with his rattan, saying in a low musical voicepeculiar to him at times, “Handsomely done, my lad! Andhandsome is as handsome did it too!” And with that passedon. Not noted by Billy, as not coming within his view,was the involuntary smile, or rather grimace, that accom-panied Claggart’s equivocal words. Aridly it drew downthe thin corners of his shapely mouth. But everybodytaking his remark as meant for humourous, and at whichtherefore as coming from a superior they were bound tolaugh “with counterfeited glee,” acted accordingly; andBilly tickled, it may be, by the allusion to his being thehandsome sailor, merrily joined in; then addressing hismessmates exclaimed, “There now, who says that JimmyLegs is down on me!”“And who said he was, Beauty?” demanded one Donaldwith some surprise. Whereat the Foretopman looked alittle foolish, recalling that it was only one person, Board-her-in-the-smoke, who had suggested what to him wasthe smoky idea that this Master-at-arms was in any pecu-liar way hostile to him. Meantime that functionary, re-suming his path, must have momentarily worn some ex-pression less guarded than that of the bitter smile, and
32Billy Buddusurping the face from the heart, some distorting expres-sion perhaps; for a drummer-boy heedlessly frolickingalong from the opposite direction and chancing to comeinto light collision with his person was strangely discon-certed by his aspect. Nor was the impression lessenedwhen the official, impulsively giving him a sharp cut withthe rattan, vehemently exclaimed, “Look where you go!”Chapter 11What was the matter with the Master-at-arms?And, be the matter what it might, how could ithave direct relation to Billy Budd with whom,prior to the affair of the spilled soup, he had never comeinto any special contact, official or otherwise? What in-deed could the trouble have to do with one so little in-clined to give offence as the merchant-ship’s peacemaker,even him who in Claggart’s own phrase was “the sweetand pleasant young fellow”? Yes, why should Jimmy Legs,to borrow the Dansker’s expression, be down on the Hand-some Sailor? But, at heart and not for nothing, as thelate chance encounter may indicate to the discerning,down on him, secretly down on him, he assuredly was.Now to invent something touching the more privatecareer of Claggart, something involving Billy Budd, ofwhich something the latter should be wholly ignorant,some romantic incident implying that Claggart’s knowl-edge of the young blue-jacket began at some period an-terior to catching sight of him on board the seventy-
33Herman Melvillefour-all this, not so difficult to do, might avail in a waymore or less interesting to account for whatever of enigmamay appear to lurk in the case. But in fact there wasnothing of the sort. And yet the cause, necessarily to beassumed as the sole one assignable, is in its very realismas much charged with that prime element of Radcliffianromance, the mysterious, as any that the ingenuity ofthe author of the Mysteries of Udolpho could devise. Forwhat can more partake of the mysterious than an antipa-thy spontaneous and profound, such as is evoked in cer-tain exceptional mortals by the mere aspect of some othermortal, however harmless he may be, if not called forthby this very harmlessness itself?Now there can exist no irritating juxtaposition of dis-similar personalities comparable to that which is pos-sible aboard a great war-ship fully manned and at sea.There, every day among all ranks almost every man comesinto more or less of contact with almost every other man.Wholly there to avoid even the sight of an aggravatingobject one must needs give it Jonah’s toss or jump over-board himself. Imagine how all this might eventuallyoperate on some peculiar human creature the direct re-verse of a saint?But for the adequate comprehending of Claggart by anormal nature, these hints are insufficient. To pass froma normal nature to him one must cross “the deadly spacebetween.” And this is best done by indirection.Long ago an honest scholar my senior, said to me inreference to one who like himself is now no more, a manso unimpeachably respectable that against him nothingwas ever openly said though among the few somethingwas whispered, ‘Yes, X— is a nut not be cracked by thetap of a lady’s fan. You are aware that I am the adherentof no organized religion much less of any philosophy builtinto a system. Well, for all that, I think that to try andget into X—, enter his labyrinth and get out again, with-out a clue derived from some source other than what isknown as “knowledge of the world”—that were hardlypossible, at least for me.”“Why,” said I, “X—, however singular a study to some, isyet human, and knowledge of the world assuredly implies theknowledge of human nature, and in most of its varieties.”
34Billy Budd“Yes, but a superficial knowledge of it, serving ordinarypurposes. But for anything deeper, I am not certainwhether to know the world and to know human nature benot two distinct branches of knowledge, which while theymay coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist withlittle or nothing of the other. Nay, in an average man ofthe world, his constant rubbing with it blunts that finespiritual insight indispensable to the understanding ofthe essential in certain exceptional characters, whetherevil ones or good. In a matter of some importance I haveseen a girl wind an old lawyer about her little finger. Norwas it the dotage of senile love. Nothing of the sort. Buthe knew law better than he knew the girl’s heart. Cokeand Blackstone hardly shed so much light into obscurespiritual places as the Hebrew prophets. And who werethey? Mostly recluses.”At the time my inexperience was such that I did notquite see the drift of all this. It may be that I see it now.And, indeed, if that lexicon which is based on Holy Writwere any longer popular, one might with less difficultydefine and denominate certain phenomenal men. As it is,one must turn to some authority not liable to the chargeof being tinctured with the Biblical element.In a list of definitions included in the authentic trans-lation of Plato, a list attributed to him, occurs this: “Natu-ral Depravity: a depravity according to nature.” A defini-tion which tho’ savoring of Calvinism, by no means in-volves Calvin’s dogmas as to total mankind. Evidently itsintent makes it applicable but to individuals. Not manyare the examples of this depravity which the gallows andjail supply. At any rate for notable instances, since thesehave no vulgar alloy of the brute in them, but invariablyare dominated by intellectuality, one must go elsewhere.Civilization, especially if of the austerer sort, is auspi-cious to it. It folds itself in the mantle of respectability.It has its certain negative virtues serving as silent auxil-iaries. It never allows wine to get within its guard. It isnot going too far to say that it is without vices or smallsins. There is a phenomenal pride in it that excludes themfrom anything mercenary or avaricious. In short the de-pravity here meant partakes nothing of the sordid or sen-sual. It is serious, but free from acerbity. Though no flat-
35Herman Melvilleterer of mankind it never speaks ill of it.But the thing which in eminent instances signalizesso exceptional a nature is this: though the man’s eventemper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate amind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not theless in his heart he would seem to riot in complete ex-emption from that law, having apparently little to dowith reason further than to employ it as an ambidexterimplement for effecting the irrational. That is to say:Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wanton-ness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane,he will direct a cool judgement sagacious and sound.These men are true madmen, and of the most dangeroussort, for their lunacy is not continuous but occasional,evoked by some special object; it is probably secretive,which is as much to say it is self-contained, so thatwhen moreover, most active, it is to the average mindnot distinguishable from sanity, and for the reason abovesuggested that whatever its aims may be—and the aimis never declared—the method and the outward pro-ceeding are always perfectly rational.Now something such an one was Claggart, in whom wasthe mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicioustraining or corrupting books or licentious living, but bornwith him and innate, in short “a depravity according tonature.”By the way, can it be the phenomenon, disowned or atleast concealed, that in some criminal cases puzzles thecourts? For this cause have our juries at times not only toendure the prolonged contentions of lawyers with theirfees, but also the yet more perplexing strife of the medi-cal experts with theirs? But why leave it to them? Whynot subpoena as well the clerical proficients? Their voca-tion bringing them into peculiar contact with so manyhuman beings, and sometimes in their least guarded hour,in interviews very much more confidential than those ofphysician and patient; this would seem to qualify themto know something about those intricacies involved inthe question of moral responsibility; whether in a givencase, say, the crime proceeded from mania in the brain orrabies of the heart. As to any differences among them-selves these clerical proficients might develop on the
36Billy Buddstand, these could hardly be greater than the direct con-tradictions exchanged between the remunerated medicalexperts.Dark sayings are these, some will say. But why? Is itbecause they somewhat savor of Holy Writ in its phrase“mysteries of iniquity”? If they do, such savor was farfrom being intended, for little will it commend these pagesto many a reader of to-day.The point of the present story turning on the hiddennature of the Master-at-arms has necessitated this chap-ter. With an added hint or two in connection with theincident at the mess, the resumed narrative must be leftto vindicate, as it may, its own credibility.Chapter 12That Claggart’s figure was not amiss, and his face,save the chin, well moulded, has already been said.Of these favorable points he seemed not insensible,for he was not only neat but careful in his dress. But theform of Billy Budd was heroic; and if his face was withoutthe intellectual look of the pallid Claggart’s, not the lesswas it lit, like his, from within, though from a differentsource. The bonfire in his heart made luminous the rose-tan in his cheek.In view of the marked contrast between the persons ofthe twain, it is more than probable that when the Mas-ter-at-arms in the scene last given applied to the sailorthe proverb Handsome is as handsome does, he there letescape an ironic inkling, not caught by the young sailorswho heard it, as to what it was that had first moved himagainst Billy, namely, his significant personal beauty.Now envy and antipathy, passions irreconcilable in rea-son, nevertheless in fact may spring conjoined like Changand Eng in one birth. Is Envy then such a monster? Well,
37Herman Melvillethough many an arraigned mortal has in hopes of miti-gated penalty pleaded guilty to horrible actions, did everanybody seriously confess to envy? Something there is init universally felt to be more shameful than even feloni-ous crime. And not only does everybody disown it, butthe better sort are inclined to incredulity when it is inearnest imputed to an intelligent man. But since its lodge-ment is in the heart not the brain, no degree of intellectsupplies a guarantee against it. But Claggart’s was novulgar form of the passion. Nor, as directed toward BillyBudd, did it partake of that streak of apprehensive jeal-ousy that marred Saul’s visage perturbedly brooding onthe comely young David. Claggart’s envy struck deeper. Ifaskance he eyed the good looks, cheery health and frankenjoyment of young life in Billy Budd, it was becausethese went along with a nature that, as Claggart mag-netically felt, had in its simplicity never willed malice orexperienced the reactionary bite of that serpent. To him,the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from hiswelkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was whichmade the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints,and dancing in his yellow curls made him preeminentlythe Handsome Sailor. One person excepted, the Master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectu-ally capable of adequately appreciating the moral phe-nomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight butintensified his passion, which assuming various secretforms within him, at times assumed that of cynic dis-dain- disdain of innocence. To be nothing more than in-nocent! Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it,the courageous free-and- easy temper of it, and fain wouldhave shared it, but he despaired of it.With no power to annul the elemental evil in him, tho’readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good,but powerless to be it; a nature like Claggart’s surchargedwith energy as such natures almost invariably are, whatrecourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like thescorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, actout to the end the part allotted it.
38Billy BuddChapter 13Passion, and passion in its profoundest, is not athing demanding a palatial stage whereon to playits part. Down among the groundlings, among thebeggars and rakers of the garbage, profound passion isenacted. And the circumstances that provoke it, howevertrivial or mean, are no measure of its power. In the presentinstance the stage is a scrubbed gun deck, and one of theexternal provocations a man- of-war’s-man’s spilled soup.Now when the Master-at-arms noticed whence came thatgreasy fluid streaming before his feet, he must have takenit—to some extent wilfully, perhaps—not for the mereaccident it assuredly was, but for the sly escape of aspontaneous feeling on Billy’s part more or less answer-ing to the antipathy on his own. In effect a foolish dem-onstration he must have thought, and very harmless, likethe futile kick of a heifer, which yet were the heifer ashod stallion, would not be so harmless. Even so was itthat into the gall of Claggart’s envy he infused the vitriolof his contempt. But the incident confirmed to him cer-tain tell- tale reports purveyed to his ear by Squeak, oneof his more cunning Corporals, a grizzled little man, sonicknamed by the sailors on account of his squeaky voice,and sharp visage ferreting about the dark corners of thelower decks after interlopers, satirically suggesting tothem the idea of a rat in a cellar.From his Chief’s employing him as an implicit tool inlaying little traps for the worriment of the Foretopman—for it was from the Master-at-arms that the petty perse-cutions heretofore adverted to had proceeded—the Cor-poral having naturally enough concluded that his mastercould have no love for the sailor, made it his business,faithful understrapper that he was, to foment the ill bloodby perverting to his Chief certain innocent frolics of thegoodnatured Foretopman, besides inventing for his mouthsundry contumelious epithets he claimed to have over-heard him let fall. The Master-at-arms never suspectedthe veracity of these reports, more especially as to theepithets, for he well knew how secretly unpopular maybecome a master-at-arms, at least a master-at-arms ofthose days zealous in his function, and how the blue-
39Herman Melvillejackets shoot at him in private their raillery and wit; thenickname by which he goes among them (Jimmy Legs)implying under the form of merriment their cherished dis-respect and dislike.But in view of the greediness of hate for patrolmen, ithardly needed a purveyor to feed Claggart’s passion. Anuncommon prudence is habitual with the subtler deprav-ity, for it has everything to hide. And in case of an injurybut suspected, its secretiveness voluntarily cuts it offfrom enlightenment or disillusion; and, not unreluctantly,action is taken upon surmise as upon certainty. And theretaliation is apt to be in monstrous disproportion to thesupposed offence; for when in anybody was revenge inits exactions aught else but an inordinate usurer? Buthow with Claggart’s conscience? For though consciencesare unlike as foreheads, every intelligence, not excludingthe Scriptural devils who “believe and tremble,” has one.But Claggart’s conscience being but the lawyer to hiswill, made ogres of trifles, probably arguing that themotive imputed to Billy in spilling the soup just when hedid, together with the epithets alleged, these, if nothingmore, made a strong case against him; nay, justified ani-mosity into a sort of retributive righteousness. The Phari-see is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers un-derlying the Claggarts. And they can really form no con-ception of an unreciprocated malice. Probably, the Mas-ter-at-arms’ clandestine persecution of Billy was startedto try the temper of the man; but it had not developedany quality in him that enmity could make official use ofor even pervert into plausible self-justification; so thatthe occurrence at the mess, petty if it were, was a wel-come one to that peculiar conscience assigned to be theprivate mentor of Claggart. And, for the rest, not improb-ably it put him upon new experiments.
40Billy BuddChapter 14Not many days after the last incident narrated,something befell Billy Budd that more gravelledhim than aught that had previously occurred.It was a warm night for the latitude; and the Foretopman,whose watch at the time was properly below, was dozingon the uppermost deck whither he had ascended from hishot hammock, one of hundreds suspended so closelywedged together over a lower gun deck that there waslittle or no swing to them. He lay as in the shadow of ahill-side, stretched under the lee of the booms, a piledridge of spare spars amidships between fore-mast andmainmast and among which the ship’s largest boat, thelaunch, was stowed. Alongside of three other slumberersfrom below, he lay near that end of the booms whichapproaches the fore-mast; his station aloft on duty as aforetopman being just over the deckstation of theforecastlemen, entitling him according to usage to makehimself more or less at home in that neighbourhood.Presently he was stirred into semi-consciousness by some-body, who must have previously sounded the sleep of theothers, touching his shoulder, and then as the Foretopmanraised his head, breathing into his ear in a quick whisper,“Slip into the lee forechains, Billy; there is something inthe wind. Don’t speak. Quick, I will meet you there”; anddisappeared.Now Billy like sundry other essentially good-naturedones had some of the weaknesses inseparable from es-sential good-nature; and among these was a reluctance,almost an incapacity of plumply saying no to an abruptproposition not obviously absurd, on the face of it, norobviously unfriendly, nor iniquitous. And being of warmblood he had not the phlegm tacitly to negative any propo-sition by unresponsive inaction. Like his sense of fear,his apprehension as to aught outside of the honest andnatural was seldom very quick. Besides, upon the presentoccasion, the drowse from his sleep still hung upon him.However it was, he mechanically rose, and sleepily won-dering what could be in the wind, betook himself to thedesignated place, a narrow platform, one of six, outsideof the high bulwarks and screened by the great dead-
41Herman Melvilleeyes and multiple columned lanyards of the shrouds andback-stays; and, in a great war-ship of that time, of di-mensions commensurate with the hull’s magnitude; a tarrybalcony, in short, overhanging the sea, and so secludedthat one mariner of the Indomitable, a non-conformistold tar of a serious turn, made it even in daytime hisprivate oratory.In this retired nook the stranger soon joined Billy Budd.There was no moon as yet; a haze obscured the star-light. He could not distinctly see the stranger’s face. Yetfrom something in the outline and carriage, Billy tookhim to be, and correctly, one of the afterguard.“Hist! Billy,” said the man in the same quick cautionarywhisper as before; “You were impressed, weren’t you? Well,so was I”; and he paused, as to mark the effect. But Billy,not knowing exactly what to make of this, said nothing.Then the other: “We are not the only impressed ones,Billy. There’s a gang of us.— Couldn’t you—help—at apinch?”“What do you mean?” demanded Billy, here thoroughlyshaking off his drowse.“Hist, hist!” the hurried whisper now growing husky,“see here”; and the man held up two small objects faintlytwinkling in the nightlight; “see, they are yours, Billy, ifyou’ll only—”But Billy broke in, and in his resentful eagerness todeliver himself his vocal infirmity somewhat intruded:“D- D-Damme, I don’t know what you are d-d-driving at,or what you mean, but you had better g-g-go where youbelong!” For the moment the fellow, as confounded, didnot stir; and Billy springing to his feet, said, “If you d-don’t start I’ll t-t-toss you back over the r-rail!” Therewas no mistaking this and the mysterious emissary de-camped disappearing in the direction of the main-mastin the shadow of the booms.“Hallo, what’s the matter?” here came growling from aforecastleman awakened from his deck-doze by Billy’sraised voice. And as the Foretopman reappeared and wasrecognized by him; “Ah, Beauty, is it you? Well, some-thing must have been the matter for you st-st-stuttered.”“O,” rejoined Billy, now mastering the impediment; “Ifound an afterguardsman in our part of the ship here and
42Billy BuddI bid him be off where he belongs.”“And is that all you did about it, Foretopman?” grufflydemanded another, an irascible old fellow of brick- col-ored visage and hair, and who was known to his associateforecastlemen as Red Pepper; “Such sneaks I should liketo marry to the gunner’s daughter!” by that expressionmeaning that he would like to subject them to disciplin-ary castigation over a gun.However, Billy’s rendering of the matter satisfactorilyaccounted to these inquirers for the brief commotion,since of all the sections of a ship’s company, theforecastlemen, veterans for the most part and bigoted intheir sea-prejudices, are the most jealous in resentingterritorial encroachments, especially on the part of anyof the afterguard, of whom they have but a sorry opinion,chiefly landsmen, never going aloft except to reef or furlthe mainsail and in no wise competent to handle amarlinspike or turn in a dead- eye, say.Chapter 15This incident sorely puzzled Billy Budd. It was anentirely new experience; the first time in his lifethat he had ever been personally approached inunderhand intriguing fashion. Prior to this encounter hehad known nothing of the afterguardsman, the two menbeing stationed wide apart, one forward and aloft duringhis watch, the other on deck and aft.What could it mean? And could they really be guineas,those two glittering objects the interloper had held up tohis eyes? Where could the fellow get guineas? Why evenspare buttons are not so plentiful at sea. The more heturned the matter over, the more he was non-plussed,and made uneasy and discomforted. In his disgustful re-coil from an overture which tho’ he but ill comprehendedhe instinctively knew must involve evil of some sort, BillyBudd was like a young horse fresh from the pasture sud-denly inhaling a vile whiff from some chemical factory,and by repeated snortings tries to get it out of his nos-trils and lungs. This frame of mind barred all desire of
43Herman Melvilleholding further parley with the fellow, even were it butfor the purpose of gaining some enlightenment as to hisdesign in approaching him. And yet he was not withoutnatural curiosity to see how such a visitor in the darkwould look in broad day.He espied him the following afternoon, in his first dog-watch, below, one of the smokers on that forward part ofthe upper gun deck allotted to the pipe. He recognizedhim by his general cut and build, more than by his roundfreckled face and glassy eyes of pale blue, veiled withlashes all but white. And yet Billy was a bit uncertainwhether indeed it were he—yonder chap about his ownage chatting and laughing in free-hearted way, leaningagainst a gun; a genial young fellow enough to look at,and something of a rattlebrain, to all appearance. Ratherchubby too for a sailor, even an afterguardsman. In shortthe last man in the world, one would think, to beoverburthened with thoughts, especially those perilousthoughts that must needs belong to a conspirator in anyserious project, or even to the underling of such a con-spirator.Altho’ Billy was not aware of it, the fellow, with a side-long watchful glance had perceived Billy first, and thennoting that Billy was looking at him, thereupon nodded afamiliar sort of friendly recognition as to an old acquain-tance, without interrupting the talk he was engaged inwith the group of smokers. A day or two afterwards, chanc-ing in the evening promenade on a gun deck to passBilly, he offered a flying word of good-fellowship, as itwere, which by its unexpectedness, and equivocalnessunder the circumstances so embarrassed Billy that he knewnot how to respond to it, and let it go unnoticed.Billy was now left more at a loss than before. The inef-fectual speculation into which he was led was so disturb-ingly alien to him, that he did his best to smother it. Itnever entered his mind that here was a matter whichfrom its extreme questionableness, it was his duty as aloyal blue-jacket to report in the proper quarter. And,probably, had such a step been suggested to him, hewould have been deterred from taking it by the thought,one of novice-magnanimity, that it would savor overmuchof the dirty work of a telltale. He kept the thing to him-
44Billy Buddself. Yet upon one occasion, he could not forbear a littledisburthening himself to the old Dansker, tempted theretoperhaps by the influence of a balmy night when the shiplay becalmed; the twain, silent for the most part, sittingtogether on deck, their heads propped against the bul-warks. But it was only a partial and anonymous accountthat Billy gave, the unfounded scruples above referred topreventing full disclosure to anybody. Upon hearing Billy’sversion, the sage Dansker seemed to divine more than hewas told; and after a little meditation during which hiswrinkles were pursed as into a point, quite effacing forthe time that quizzing expression his face sometimeswore,”Didn’t I say so, Baby Budd?”“Say what?” demanded Billy.“Why, Jimmy Legs is down on you.”“And what,” rejoined Billy in amazement, “has JimmyLegs to do with that cracked afterguardsman?”“Ho, it was an afterguardsman then. A cat’s-paw, a cat’s-paw!” And with that exclamation, which, whether it hadreference to a light puff of air just then coming over thecalm sea, or subtler relation to the afterguardsman thereis no telling, the old Merlin gave a twisting wrench withhis black teeth at his plug of tobacco, vouchsafing noreply to Billy’s impetuous question, tho’ now repeated,for it was his wont to relapse into grim silence wheninterrogated in skeptical sort as to any of his sententiousoracles, not always very clear ones, rather partaking ofthat obscurity which invests most Delphic deliverancesfrom any quarter.Long experience had very likely brought this old manto that bitter prudence which never interferes in aughtand never gives advice.
45Herman MelvilleChapter 16Yes, despite the Dansker’s pithy insistence as to theMaster-at-arms being at the bottom of these strangeexperiences of Billy on board the Indomitable, theyoung sailor was ready to ascribe them to almost any-body but the man who, to use Billy’s own expression,“always had a pleasant word for him.” This is to be won-dered at. Yet not so much to be wondered at. In certainmatters, some sailors even in mature life remain unso-phisticated enough. But a young seafarer of the disposi-tion of our athletic Foretopman, is much of a child-man.And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank igno-rance, and the innocence more or less wanes as intelli-gence waxes. But in Billy Budd intelligence, such as itwas, had advanced, while yet his simplemindedness re-mained for the most part unaffected. Experience is ateacher indeed; yet did Billy’s years make his experiencesmall. Besides, he had none of that intuitive knowledgeof the bad which in natures not good or incompletely soforeruns experience, and therefore may pertain, as in someinstances it too clearly does pertain, even to youth.And what could Billy know of man except of man as amere sailor? And the old-fashioned sailor, the veritableman-before-the-mast, the sailor from boyhood up, he,tho’ indeed of the same species as a landsman, is in somerespects singularly distinct from him. The sailor is frank-ness, the landsman is finesse. Life is not a game with thesailor, demanding the long head; no intricate game ofchess where few moves are made in straightforwardness,and ends are attained by indirection; an oblique, tedious,barren game hardly worth that poor candle burnt out inplaying it.Yes, as a class, sailors are in character a juvenile race.Even their deviations are marked by juvenility. And thismore especially holding true with the sailors of Billy’stime. Then, too, certain things which apply to all sailors,do more pointedly operate, here and there, upon the jun-ior one. Every sailor, too, is accustomed to obey orderswithout debating them; his life afloat is externally ruledfor him; he is not brought into that promiscuous com-merce with mankind where unobstructed free agency on
46Billy Buddequal terms— equal superficially, at least—soon teachesone that unless upon occasion he exercise a distrust keenin proportion to the fairness of the appearance, some foulturn may be served him. A ruled undemonstrative distrust-fulness is so habitual, not with business-men so much, aswith men who know their kind in less shallow relationsthan business, namely, certain men-of-the-world, that theycome at last to employ it all but unconsciously; and someof them would very likely feel real surprise at being chargedwith it as one of their general characteristics.Chapter 17But after the little matter at the mess Billy Buddno more found himself in strange trouble at timesabout his hammock or his clothesbag or what not.While, as to that smile that occasionally sunned him, andthe pleasant passing word, these were if not more fre-quent, yet if anything, more pronounced than before.But for all that, there were certain other demonstra-tions now. When Claggart’s unobserved glance happenedto light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deckin the leisure of the second dog-watch, exchanging pass-ing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders inthe crowd; that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy ex-pression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient fe-verish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man ofsorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expressionwould have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggartcould even have loved Billy but for fate and ban. But thiswas an evanescence, and quickly repented of, as it were,
47Herman Melvilleby an immitigable look, pinching and shrivelling the vis-age into the momentary semblance of a wrinkled walnut.But sometimes catching sight in advance of theForetopman coming in his direction, he would, upon theirnearing, step aside a little to let him pass, dwelling uponBilly for the moment with the glittering dental satire of aGuise. But upon any abrupt unforeseen encounter a redlight would flash forth from his eye like a spark from ananvil in a dusk smithy. That quick fierce light was a strangeone, darted from orbs which in repose were of a colornearest approaching a deeper violet, the softest of shades.Tho’ some of these caprices of the pit could not but beobserved by their object, yet were they beyond the con-struing of such a nature. And the thews of Billy werehardly compatible with that sort of sensitive spiritualorganisation which in some cases instinctively conveysto ignorant innocence an admonition of the proximity ofthe malign. He thought the Master-at-arms acted in amanner rather queer at times. That was all. But the occa-sional frank air and pleasant word went for what theypurported to be, the young sailor never having heard asyet of the “too fair-spoken man.”Had the Foretopman been conscious of having done orsaid anything to provoke the ill will of the official, itwould have been different with him, and his sight mighthave been purged if not sharpened. As it was, innocencewas his blinder.So was it with him in yet another matter. Two minorofficers—the Armorer and Captain of the Hold, with whomhe had never exchanged a word, his position in the shipnot bringing him into contact with them; these men nowfor the first began to cast upon Billy when they chancedto encounter him, that peculiar glance which evidencesthat the man from whom it comes has been some waytampered with and to the prejudice of him upon whomthe glance lights. Never did it occur to Billy as a thing tobe noted or a thing suspicious, tho’ he well knew thefact, that the Armorer and Captain of the Hold, with theship’s-yeoman, apothecary, and others of that grade, wereby naval usage, messmates of the Master-at-arms, menwith ears convenient to his confidential tongue.But the general popularity that our Handsome Sailor’s
48Billy Buddmanly forwardness bred upon occasion, and his irresist-ible good-nature, indicating no mental superiority tend-ing to excite an invidious feeling, this good will on thepart of most of his shipmates made him the less to con-cern himself about such mute aspects toward him as thosewhereto allusion has just been made, aspects he couldnot fathom as to infer their whole import.As to the afterguardsman, tho’ Billy for reasons alreadygiven necessarily saw little of him, yet when the two didhappen to meet, invariably came the fellow’s off-handcheerful recognition, sometimes accompanied by a pass-ing pleasant word or two. Whatever that equivocal youngperson’s original design may really have been, or the de-sign of which he might have been the deputy, certain itwas from his manner upon these occasions, that he hadwholly dropped it.It was as if his precocity of crookedness (and everyvulgar villain is precocious) had for once deceived him,and the man he had sought to entrap as a simpleton had,through his very simplicity, ignominiously baffled him.But shrewd ones may opine that it was hardly possiblefor Billy to refrain from going up to the afterguardsmanand bluntly demanding to know his purpose in the initialinterview, so abruptly closed in the fore-chains. Shrewdones may also think it but natural in Billy to set aboutsounding some of the other impressed men of the ship inorder to discover what basis, if any, there was for theemissary’s obscure suggestions as to plotting disaffec-tion aboard. Yes, the shrewd may so think. But some-thing more, or rather, something else than mere shrewd-ness is perhaps needful for the due understanding of sucha character as Billy Budd’s.As to Claggart, the monomania in the man—if thatindeed it were—as involuntarily disclosed by starts inthe manifestations detailed, yet in general covered overby his self-contained and rational demeanour; this, like asubterranean fire was eating its way deeper and deeperin him. Something decisive must come of it.
49Herman MelvilleChapter 18After the mysterious interview in the fore-chains—the one so abruptly ended there by Billy—nothing especially german to the story occurred untilthe events now about to be narrated.Elsewhere it has been said that in the lack of frigates(of course better sailers than line-of-battle ships) in theEnglish squadron up the Straits at that period, the In-domitable was occasionally employed not only as an avail-able substitute for a scout, but at times on detachedservice of more important kind. This was not alone be-cause of her sailing qualities, not common in a ship ofher rate, but quite as much, probably, that the characterof her commander, it was thought, specially adapted himfor any duty where under unforeseen difficulties a promptinitiative might have to be taken in some matter de-manding knowledge and ability in addition to those quali-ties implied in good seamanship. It was on an expeditionof the latter sort, a somewhat distant one, and when theIndomitable was almost at her furthest remove from thefleet, that in the latter part of an afternoon-watch sheunexpectedly came in sight of a ship of the enemy. Itproved to be a frigate. The latter perceiving thro’ theglass that the weight of men and metal would be heavilyagainst her, invoking her light heels, crowded sail to getaway. After a chase urged almost against hope and last-ing until about the middle of the first dog-watch, shesignally succeeded in effecting her escape.Not long after the pursuit had been given up, and erethe excitement incident thereto had altogether wanedaway, the Master-at-arms, ascending from his cavernoussphere, made his appearance cap in hand by the main-mast, respectfully waiting the notice of Captain Vere thensolitary walking the weather- side of the quarterdeck,doubtless somewhat chafed at the failure of the pursuit.The spot where Claggart stood was the place allotted tomen of lesser grades seeking some more particular inter-view either with the officer-of-the-deck or the Captainhimself. But from the latter it was not often that a sailoror petty- officer of those days would seek a hearing; onlysome exceptional cause, would, according to established
50Billy Buddcustom, have warranted that.Presently, just as the Commander absorbed in his re-flections was on the point of turning aft in his prom-enade, he became sensible of Claggart’s presence, andsaw the doffed cap held in deferential expectancy. Herebe it said that Captain Vere’s personal knowledge of thispetty-officer had only begun at the time of the ship’s lastsailing from home, Claggart then for the first, in transferfrom a ship detained for repairs, supplying on board theIndomitable the place of a previous master-at-arms dis-abled and ashore.No sooner did the Commander observe who it was thatdeferentially stood awaiting his notice, than a peculiarexpression came over him. It was not unlike that whichuncontrollably will flit across the countenance of one atunawares encountering a person who, though known tohim indeed, has hardly been long enough known for thor-ough knowledge, but something in whose aspect never-theless now for the first provokes a vaguely repellentdistaste. But coming to a stand, and resuming much ofhis wonted official manner, save that a sort of impatiencelurked in the intonation of the opening word, he said,“Well? what is it, Master-at-arms?”With the air of a subordinate grieved at the necessityof being a messenger of ill tidings, and while conscien-tiously determined to be frank, yet equally resolved uponshunning overstatement, Claggart, at this invitation orrather summons to disburthen, spoke up. What he said,conveyed in the language of no uneducated man, was tothe effect following, if not altogether in these words,namely, that during the chase and preparations for thepossible encounter he had seen enough to convince himthat at least one sailor aboard was a dangerous characterin a ship mustering some who not only had taken a guiltypart in the late serious troubles, but others also who, likethe man in question, had entered His Majesty’s serviceunder another form than enlistment.At this point Captain Vere with some impatience inter-rupted him: “Be direct, man; say impressed men.”Claggart made a gesture of subservience, and proceeded.Quite lately he (Claggart) had begun to suspect that onthe gun decks some sort of movement prompted by the
51Herman Melvillesailor in question was covertly going on, but he had notthought himself warranted in reporting the suspicion solong as it remained indistinct. But from what he had thatafternoon observed in the man referred to, the suspicionof something clandestine going on had advanced to apoint less removed from certainty. He deeply felt, headded, the serious responsibility assumed in making areport involving such possible consequences to the indi-vidual mainly concerned, besides tending to augmentthose natural anxieties which every naval commander mustfeel in view of extraordinary outbreaks so recent as thosewhich, he sorrowfully said it, it needed not to name.Now at the first broaching of the matter Captain Vere,taken by surprise, could not wholly dissemble his disqui-etude. But as Claggart went on, the former’s aspectchanged into restiveness under something in the wit-ness’ manner in giving his testimony. However, he re-frained from interrupting him. And Claggart, continuing,concluded with this: “God forbid, Your Honor, that theIndomitable’s should be the experience of the—”“Never mind that!” here peremptorily broke in the su-perior, his face altering with anger, instinctively diviningthe ship that the other was about to name, one in whichthe Nore Mutiny had assumed a singularly tragical char-acter that for a time jeopardized the life of its commander.Under the circumstances he was indignant at the pur-posed allusion. When the commissioned officers them-selves were on all occasions very heedful how they re-ferred to the recent events, for a petty-officer unneces-sarily to allude to them in the presence of his Captain,this struck him as a most immodest presumption. Be-sides, to his quick sense of self- respect, it even lookedunder the circumstances something like an attempt toalarm him. Nor at first was he without some surprise thatone who so far as he had hitherto come under his noticehad shown considerable tact in his function should inthis particular evince such lack of it.But these thoughts and kindred dubious ones flittingacross his mind were suddenly replaced by an intuitionalsurmise which, though as yet obscure in form, servedpractically to affect his reception of the ill tidings. Cer-tain it is, that long versed in everything pertaining to
52Billy Buddthe complicated gun-deck life, which like every other formof life, has its secret mines and dubious side, the sidepopularly disclaimed, Captain Vere did not permit him-self to be unduly disturbed by the general tenor of hissubordinate’s report. Furthermore, if in view of recentevents prompt action should be taken at the first pal-pable sign of recurring insubordination, for all that, notjudicious would it be, he thought, to keep the idea oflingering disaffection alive by undue forwardness in cred-iting an informer, even if his own subordinate, and chargedamong other things with police surveillance of the crew.This feeling would not perhaps have so prevailed withhim were it not that upon a prior occasion the patrioticzeal officially evinced by Claggart had somewhat irritatedhim as appearing rather supersensible and strained. Fur-thermore, something even in the official’s self-possessedand somewhat ostentatious manner in making his speci-fications strangely reminded him of a bandsman, aperjurous witness in a capital case before a courtmartialashore of which when a lieutenant, he, Captain Vere, hadbeen a member.Now the peremptory check given to Claggart in the mat-ter of the arrested allusion was quickly followed up bythis: “You say that there is at least one dangerous manaboard. Name him.”“William Budd. A foretopman, Your Honor-”“William Budd,” repeated Captain Vere with unfeignedastonishment; “and mean you the man that LieutenantRatcliff took from the merchantman not very long ago—the young fellow who seems to be so popular with themen—Billy, the ‘Handsome Sailor,’ as they call him?”“The same, Your Honor; but for all his youth and goodlooks, a deep one. Not for nothing does he insinuate him-self into the good will of his shipmates, since at the leastall hands will at a pinch say a good word for him at allhazards. Did Lieutenant Ratcliff happen to tell Your Honorof that adroit fling of Budd’s, jumping up in the cutter’sbow under the merchantman’s stern when he was beingtaken off? It is even masqued by that sort of good-humoured air that at heart he resents his impressment.You have but noted his fair cheek. A man-trap may beunder his ruddy-tipped daisies.”
53Herman MelvilleNow the Handsome Sailor, as a signal figure among thecrew, had naturally enough attracted the Captain’s atten-tion from the first. Tho’ in general not very demonstra-tive to his officers, he had congratulated LieutenantRatcliff upon his good fortune in lighting on such a finespecimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might haveposed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.As to Billy’s adieu to the ship Rights-of-Man, which theboarding lieutenant had indeed reported to him, but in adeferential way more as a good story than aught else,Captain Vere, tho’ mistakenly understanding it as a sa-tiric sally, had but thought so much the better of theimpressed man for it; as a military sailor, admiring thespirit that could take an arbitrary enlistment so merrilyand sensibly. The Foretopman’s conduct, too, so far as ithad fallen under the Captain’s notice, had confirmed thefirst happy augury, while the new recruit’s qualities as asailor-man seemed to be such that he had thought ofrecommending him to the executive officer for promo-tion to a place that would more frequently bring himunder his own observation, namely, the captaincy of themizzentop, replacing there in the starboard watch a mannot so young whom partly for that reason he deemed lessfitted for the post. Be it parenthesized here that sincethe mizzentopmen having not to handle such breadths ofheavy canvas as the lower sails on the main-mast andfore-mast, a young man if of the right stuff not onlyseems best adapted to duty there, but in fact is generallyselected for the captaincy of that top, and the companyunder him are light hands and often but striplings. Insum, Captain Vere had from the beginning deemed BillyBudd to be what in the naval parlance of the time wascalled a “King’s bargain,” that is to say, for His BritannicMajesty’s Navy a capital investment at small outlay ornone at all.After a brief pause during which the reminiscences abovementioned passed vividly through his mind and he weighedthe import of Claggart’s last suggestion conveyed in thephrase “man-trap under his daisies,” and the more heweighed it the less reliance he felt in the informer’s goodfaith, suddenly he turned upon him and in a low voice:“Do you come to me, Master-at-arms, with so foggy a
54Billy Buddtale? As to Budd, cite me an act or spoken word of hisconfirmatory of what you in general charge against him.Stay,” drawing nearer to him, “heed what you speak. Justnow, and in a case like this, there is a yard- arm-end forthe false-witness.”“Ah, Your Honor!” sighed Claggart, mildly shaking hisshapely head as in sad deprecation of such unmerited se-verity of tone. Then, bridling—erecting himself as in vir-tuous self-assertion—he circumstantially alleged certainwords and acts, which collectively, if credited, led to pre-sumptions mortally inculpating Budd. And for some of theseaverments, he added, substantiating proof was not far.With gray eyes impatient and distrustful essaying tofathom to the bottom Claggart’s calm violet ones, Cap-tain Vere again heard him out; then for the moment stoodruminating. The mood he evinced, Claggart— himself forthe time liberated from the other’s scrutiny—steadilyregarded with a look difficult to render,—a look curiousof the operation of his tactics, a look such as might havebeen that of the spokesman of the envious children ofJacob deceptively imposing upon the troubled patriarchthe blood-dyed coat of young Joseph.Though something exceptional in the moral quality ofCaptain Vere made him, in earnest encounter with a fel-low-man, a veritable touch-stone of that man’s essentialnature, yet now as to Claggart and what was really goingon in him, his feeling partook less of intuitional convic-tion than of strong suspicion clogged by strange dubi-eties. The perplexity he evinced proceeded less from aughttouching the man informed against—as Claggart doubt-less opined—than from considerations how best to actin regard to the informer. At first indeed he was naturallyfor summoning that substantiation of his allegations whichClaggart said was at hand. But such a proceeding wouldresult in the matter at once getting abroad, which in thepresent stage of it, he thought, might undesirably affectthe ship’s company. If Claggart was a false witness,—that closed the affair. And therefore before trying theaccusation, he would first practically test the accuser;and he thought this could be done in a quiet undemon-strative way.The measure he determined upon involved a shifting of
55Herman Melvillethe scene, a transfer to a place less exposed to observa-tion than the broad quarter-deck. For although the fewgun-room officers there at the time had, in due obser-vance of naval etiquette, withdrawn to leeward the mo-ment Captain Vere had begun his promenade on the deck’sweather-side; and tho’ during the colloquy with Claggartthey of course ventured not to diminish the distance;and though throughout the interview Captain Vere’s voicewas far from high, and Claggart’s silvery and low; and thewind in the cordage and the wash of the sea helped themore to put them beyond earshot; nevertheless, theinterview’s continuance already had attracted observa-tion from some topmen aloft and other sailors in thewaist or further forward.Having determined upon his measures, Captain Vereforthwith took action. Abruptly turning to Claggart heasked, “Master-at-arms, is it now Budd’s watch aloft?”“No, Your Honor.” Whereupon, “Mr. Wilkes!” summon-ing the nearest midshipman, “tell Albert to come to me.”Albert was the Captain’s hammock-boy, a sort of sea-va-let in whose discretion and fidelity his master had muchconfidence. The lad appeared. “You know Budd theForetopman?”“I do, Sir.”“Go find him. It is his watch off. Manage to tell him outof earshot that he is wanted aft. Contrive it that he speaksto nobody. Keep him in talk yourself. And not till you getwell aft here, not till then let him know that the placewhere he is wanted is my cabin. You understand. Go.—Master-at-arms, show yourself on the decks below, andwhen you think it time for Albert to be coming with hisman, stand by quietly to follow the sailor in.”
56Billy BuddChapter 19Now when the Foretopman found himself closetedthere, as it were, in the cabin with the Captainand Claggart, he was surprised enough. But itwas a surprise unaccompanied by apprehension or dis-trust. To an immature nature essentially honest and hu-mane, forewarning intimations of subtler danger from one’skind come tardily if at all. The only thing that took shapein the young sailor’s mind was this: Yes, the Captain, Ihave always thought, looks kindly upon me. Wonder ifhe’s going to make me his coxswain. I should like that.And maybe now he is going to ask the Master-at-armsabout me.“Shut the door there, sentry,” said the Commander;“stand without, and let nobody come in.—Now, Master-at-arms, tell this man to his face what you told of him tome”; and stood prepared to scrutinize the mutually con-fronting visages.With the measured step and calm collected air of anasylum-physician approaching in the public hall some pa-tient beginning to show indications of a coming parox-ysm, Claggart deliberately advanced within short rangeof Billy, and mesmerically looking him in the eye, brieflyrecapitulated the accusation.Not at first did Billy take it in. When he did, the rose-tan of his cheek looked struck as by white leprosy. Hestood like one impaled and gagged. Meanwhile theaccuser’s eyes removing not as yet from the blue dilatedones, underwent a phenomenal change, their wonted richviolet color blurring into a muddy purple. Those lights ofhuman intelligence losing human expression, gelidly pro-truding like the alien eyes of certain uncatalogued crea-tures of the deep. The first mesmeric glance was one ofserpent fascination; the last was as the hungry lurch ofthe torpedo-fish.“Speak, man!” said Captain Vere to the transfixed one,struck by his aspect even more than by Claggart’s, “Speak!defend yourself.” Which appeal caused but a strange dumbgesturing and gurgling in Billy; amazement at such anaccusation so suddenly sprung on inexperienced nonage;this, and, it may be, horror of the accuser, serving to
57Herman Melvillebring out his lurking defect and in this instance for thetime intensifying it into a convulsed tongue-tie; whilethe intent head and entire form straining forward in anagony of ineffectual eagerness to obey the injunction tospeak and defend himself, gave an expression to the facelike that of a condemned Vestal priestess in the momentof being buried alive, and in the first struggle againstsuffocation.Though at the time Captain Vere was quite ignorant ofBilly’s liability to vocal impediment, he now immediatelydivined it, since vividly Billy’s aspect recalled to him thatof a bright young schoolmate of his whom he had onceseen struck by much the same startling impotence in theact of eagerly rising in the class to be foremost in re-sponse to a testing question put to it by the master.Going close up to the young sailor, and laying a soothinghand on his shoulder, he said, “There is no hurry, my boy.Take your time, take your time.” Contrary to the effectintended, these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touch-ing Billy’s heart to the quick, prompted yet more violentefforts at utterance—efforts soon ending for the time inconfirming the paralysis, and bringing to his face an ex-pression which was as a crucifixion to behold. The nextinstant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon atnight, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped tothe deck. Whether intentionally or but owing to the youngathlete’s superior height, the blow had taken effect fullyupon the forehead, so shapely and intellectual-looking afeature in the Master-at- arms; so that the body fell overlengthwise, like a heavy plank tilted from erectness. Agasp or two, and he lay motionless.“Fated boy,” breathed Captain Vere in tone so low as tobe almost a whisper, “what have you done! But here,help me.”The twain raised the felled one from the loins up into asitting position. The spare form flexibly acquiesced, butinertly. It was like handling a dead snake. They lowered itback. Regaining erectness Captain Vere with one handcovering his face stood to all appearance as impassive asthe object at his feet. Was he absorbed in taking in allthe bearings of the event and what was best not onlynow at once to be done, but also in the sequel? Slowly he
58Billy Budduncovered his face; and the effect was as if the moonemerging from eclipse should reappear with quite an-other aspect than that which had gone into hiding. Thefather in him, manifested towards Billy thus far in thescene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian. In hisofficial tone he bade the Foretopman retire to a state-room aft (pointing it out), and there remain till thencesummoned. This order Billy in silence mechanically obeyed.Then going to the cabin-door where it opened on thequarter-deck, Captain Vere said to the sentry without,“Tell somebody to send Albert here.” When the lad ap-peared his master so contrived it that he should not catchsight of the prone one. “Albert,” he said to him, “tell theSurgeon I wish to see him. You need not come back tillcalled.” When the Surgeon entered—a self-poised char-acter of that grave sense and experience that hardly any-thing could take him aback,—Captain Vere advanced tomeet him, thus unconsciously intercepting his view ofClaggart, and interrupting the other’s wonted ceremoni-ous salutation, said, “Nay, tell me how it is with yonderman,” directing his attention to the prostrate one.The Surgeon looked, and for all his self-command, some-what started at the abrupt revelation. On Claggart’s al-ways pallid complexion, thick black blood was now ooz-ing from nostril and ear. To the gazer’s professional eye itwas unmistakably no living man that he saw.“Is it so then?” said Captain Vere intently watchinghim. “I thought it. But verify it.” Whereupon the custom-ary tests confirmed the Surgeon’s first glance, who nowlooking up in unfeigned concern, cast a look of intenseinquisitiveness upon his superior. But Captain Vere, withone hand to his brow, was standing motionless.Suddenly, catching the Surgeon’s arm convulsively, heexclaimed, pointing down to the body—”It is the divinejudgement on Ananias! Look!”Disturbed by the excited manner he had never beforeobserved in the Indomitable’s Captain, and as yet whollyignorant of the affair, the prudent Surgeon neverthelessheld his peace, only again looking an earnest interroga-tion as to what it was that had resulted in such a tragedy.But Captain Vere was now again motionless standingabsorbed in thought. But again starting, he vehemently
59Herman Melvilleexclaimed—”Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angelmust hang!”At these passionate interjections, mere incoherencesto the listener as yet unapprised of the antecedents, theSurgeon was profoundly discomposed. But now as recol-lecting himself, Captain Vere in less passionate tone brieflyrelated the circumstances leading up to the event.“But come; we must despatch,” he added. “me to re-move him” (meaning the body) “to yonder compartment,”designating one opposite that where the Foretopman re-mained immured. Anew disturbed by a request that asimplying a desire for secrecy, seemed unaccountablystrange to him, there was nothing for the subordinate todo but comply.“Go now,” said Captain Vere with something of hiswonted manner—”Go now. I shall presently call a drum-head court. Tell the lieutenants what has happened, andtell Mr. Mordant,” meaning the Captain of Marines, “andcharge them to keep the matter to themselves.”Chapter 20Full of disquietude and misgiving the Surgeon leftthe cabin. Was Captain Vere suddenly affected inhis mind, or was it but a transient excitement,brought about by so strange and extraordinary a happen-ing? As to the drum-head court, it struck the Surgeon asimpolitic, if nothing more. The thing to do, he thought,was to place Billy Budd in confinement and in a waydictated by usage, and postpone further action in so ex-traordinary a case to such time as they should rejoin thesquadron, and then refer it to the Admiral. He recalledthe unwonted agitation of Captain Vere and his excitedexclamations so at variance with his normal manner. Washe unhinged? But assuming that he is, it is not so sus-ceptible of proof. What then can he do? No more tryingsituation is conceivable than that of an officer subordi-nate under a Captain whom he suspects to be, not madindeed, but yet not quite unaffected in his intellect. Toargue his order to him would be insolence. To resist himwould be mutiny.
60Billy BuddIn obedience to Captain Vere he communicated whathad happened to the lieutenants and Captain of Marines;saying nothing as to the Captain’s state. They fully sharedhis own surprise and concern. Like him too they seemedto think that such a matter should be referred to theAdmiral.Chapter 21Who in the rainbow can draw the line where theviolet tint ends and the orange tint begins?Distinctly we see the difference of the colors,but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter intothe other? So with sanity and insanity. In pronouncedcases there is no question about them. But in some sup-posed cases, in various degrees supposedly less pro-nounced, to draw the exact line of demarkation few willundertake tho’ for a fee some professional experts will.There is nothing namable but that some men will under-take to do it for pay.Whether Captain Vere, as the Surgeon professionally andprivately surmised, was really the sudden victim of anydegree of aberration, one must determine for himself bysuch light as this narrative may afford.That the unhappy event which has been narrated couldnot have happened at a worse juncture was but too true.For it was close on the heel of the suppressed insurrec-tions, an aftertime very critical to naval authority, de-
61Herman Melvillemanding from every English sea-commander two quali-ties not readily interfusable—prudence and rigour. More-over there was something crucial in the case.In the jugglery of circumstances preceding and attend-ing the event on board the Indomitable, and in the lightof that martial code whereby it was formally to be judged,innocence and guilt personified in Claggart and Budd ineffect changed places. In a legal view the apparent vic-tim of the tragedy was he who had sought to victimize aman blameless; and the indisputable deed of the latter,navally regarded, constituted the most heinous of mili-tary crimes. Yet more. The essential right and wrong in-volved in the matter, the clearer that might be, so muchthe worse for the responsibility of a loyal sea-commanderinasmuch as he was not authorized to determine thematter on that primitive basis.Small wonder then that the Indomitable’s Captain,though in general a man of rapid decision, felt thatcircumspectness not less than promptitude was neces-sary. Until he could decide upon his course, and in eachdetail; and not only so, but until the concluding measurewas upon the point of being enacted, he deemed it ad-visable, in view of all the circumstances, to guard as muchas possible against publicity. Here he may or may nothave erred. Certain it is, however, that subsequently inthe confidential talk of more than one or two gun-roomsand cabins he was not a little criticized by some officers,a fact imputed by his friends and vehemently by his cousin,Jack Denton, to professional jealousy of Starry Vere. Someimaginative ground for invidious comment there was. Themaintenance of secrecy in the matter, the confining allknowledge of it for a time to the place where the homi-cide occurred, the quarter- deck cabin; in these particu-lars lurked some resemblance to the policy adopted inthose tragedies of the palace which have occurred morethan once in the capital founded by Peter the Barbarian.The case indeed was such that fain would theIndomitable’s Captain have deferred taking any actionwhatever respecting it further than to keep theForetopman a close prisoner till the ship rejoined thesquadron, and then submitting the matter to the judge-ment of his Admiral.
62Billy BuddBut a true military officer is in one particular like a truemonk. Not with more of self-abnegation will the latterkeep his vows of monastic obedience than the former hisvows of allegiance to martial duty.Feeling that unless quick action was taken on it, thedeed of the Foretopman, so soon as it should be knownon the gun decks, would tend to awaken any slumberingembers of the Nore among the crew, a sense of the ur-gency of the case overruled in Captain Vere every otherconsideration. But tho’ a conscientious disciplinarian, hewas no lover of authority for mere authority’s sake. Veryfar was he from embracing opportunities for monopoliz-ing to himself the perils of moral responsibility, none atleast that could properly be referred to an official supe-rior, or shared with him by his official equals or evensubordinates. So thinking, he was glad it would not be atvariance with usage to turn the matter over to a sum-mary court of his own officers, reserving to himself asthe one on whom the ultimate accountability would rest,the right of maintaining a supervision of it, or formallyor informally interposing at need. Accordingly a drum-head court was summarily convened, he electing the in-dividuals composing it, the First Lieutenant, the Captainof Marines, and the Sailing Master.In associating an officer of marines with the sea-lieu-tenants in a case having to do with a sailor, the Com-mander perhaps deviated from general custom. He wasprompted thereto by the circumstance that he took thatsoldier to be a judicious person, thoughtful, and not al-together incapable of grappling with a difficult case un-precedented in his prior experience. Yet even as to himhe was not without some latent misgiving, for withal hewas an extremely goodnatured man, an enjoyer of hisdinner, a sound sleeper, and inclined to obesity, a manwho tho’ he would always maintain his manhood in battlemight not prove altogether reliable in a moral dilemmainvolving aught of the tragic. As to the First Lieutenantand the Sailing Master, Captain Vere could not but beaware that though honest natures, of approved gallantryupon occasion, their intelligence was mostly confined tothe matter of active seamanship and the fighting de-mands of their profession. The court was held in the same
63Herman Melvillecabin where the unfortunate affair had taken place. Thiscabin, the Commander’s, embraced the entire area underthe poopdeck. Aft, and on either side, was a small state-room; the one room temporarily a jail and the other adead- house, and a yet smaller compartment leaving aspace between, expanding forward into a goodly oblongof length coinciding with the ship’s beam. A skylight ofmoderate dimension was overhead and at each end ofthe oblong space were two sashed port-hole windowseasily convertible back into embrasures for shortcarronades.All being quickly in readiness, Billy Budd was arraigned,Captain Vere necessarily appearing as the sole witness inthe case, and as such, temporarily sinking his rank, thoughsingularly maintaining it in a matter apparently trivial,namely, that he testified from the ship’s weather-side, withthat object having caused the court to sit on the lee-side.Concisely he narrated all that had led up to the catastro-phe, omitting nothing in Claggart’s accusation and depos-ing as to the manner in which the prisoner had received it.At this testimony the three officers glanced with no littlesurprise at Billy Budd, the last man they would have sus-pected either of the mutinous design alleged by Claggartor the undeniable deed he himself had done.The First Lieutenant, taking judicial primacy and turn-ing toward the prisoner, said, “Captain Vere has spoken.Is it or is it not as Captain Vere says?” In response camesyllables not so much impeded in the utterance as mighthave been anticipated. They were these: “Captain Veretells the truth. It is just as Captain Vere says, but it is notas the Master-at-arms said. I have eaten the King’s breadand I am true to the King.”“I believe you, my man,” said the witness, his voiceindicating a suppressed emotion not otherwise betrayed.“God will bless you for that, Your Honor!” not withoutstammering said Billy, and all but broke down. But imme-diately was recalled to self-control by another question,to which with the same emotional difficulty of utterancehe said, “No, there was no malice between us. I neverbore malice against the Master-at-arms. I am sorry thathe is dead. I did not mean to kill him. Could I have usedmy tongue I would not have struck him. But he foully
64Billy Buddlied to my face and in presence of my Captain, and I hadto say something, and I could only say it with a blow,God help me!”In the impulsive above-board manner of the frank one,the court saw confirmed all that was implied in wordsthat just previously had perplexed them, coming as theydid from the testifier to the tragedy and promptly follow-ing Billy’s impassioned disclaimer of mutinous intent—Captain Vere’s words, “I believe you, my man.”Next it was asked of him whether he knew of or sus-pected aught savoring of incipient trouble (meaningmutiny, tho’ the explicit term was avoided) going on inany section of the ship’s company.The reply lingered. This was naturally imputed by thecourt to the same vocal embarrassment which had re-tarded or obstructed previous answers. But in main itwas otherwise here; the question immediately recallingto Billy’s mind the interview with the afterguardsman inthe fore-chains. But an innate repugnance to playing apart at all approaching that of an informer against one’sown shipmates—the same erring sense of uninstructedhonor which had stood in the way of his reporting thematter at the time though as a loyal man-of-war-man itwas incumbent on him, and failure so to do if chargedagainst him and proven, would have subjected him tothe heaviest of penalties; this, with the blind feelingnow his, that nothing really was being hatched, prevailedwith him. When the answer came it was a negative.“One question more,” said the officer of marines nowfirst speaking and with a troubled earnestness. “You tellus that what the Master-at-arms said against you was alie. Now why should he have so lied, so maliciously lied,since you declare there was no malice between you?”At that question unintentionally touching on a spiri-tual sphere wholly obscure to Billy’s thoughts, he wasnonplussed, evincing a confusion indeed that some ob-servers, such as can readily be imagined, would have con-strued into involuntary evidence of hidden guilt. Never-theless he strove some way to answer, but all at oncerelinquished the vain endeavor, at the same time turningan appealing glance towards Captain Vere as deeminghim his best helper and friend. Captain Vere who had
65Herman Melvillebeen seated for a time rose to his feet, addressing theinterrogator. “The question you put to him comes natu-rally enough. But how can he rightly answer it? or any-body else? unless indeed it be he who lies within there,”designating the compartment where lay the corpse. “Butthe prone one there will not rise to our summons. Ineffect, tho’, as it seems to me, the point you make ishardly material. Quite aside from any conceivable motiveactuating the Master-at-arms, and irrespective of theprovocation to the blow, a martial court must needs inthe present case confine its attention to the blow’s con-sequence, which consequence justly is to be deemed nototherwise than as the striker’s deed.”This utterance, the full significance of which it was notat all likely that Billy took in, nevertheless caused him toturn a wistful interrogative look toward the speaker, alook in its dumb expressiveness not unlike that which adog of generous breed might turn upon his master seek-ing in his face some elucidation of a previous gestureambiguous to the canine intelligence. Nor was the sameutterance without marked effect upon the three officers,more especially the soldier. Couched in it seemed to thema meaning unanticipated, involving a prejudgement onthe speaker’s part. It served to augment a mental distur-bance previously evident enough.The soldier once more spoke; in a tone of suggestivedubiety addressing at once his associates and CaptainVere: “Nobody is present—none of the ship’s company, Imean—who might shed lateral light, if any is to be had,upon what remains mysterious in this matter.”“That is thoughtfully put,” said Captain Vere; “I see yourdrift. Ay, there is a mystery; but, to use a Scriptural phrase,it is ‘a mystery of iniquity,’ a matter for psychologic theolo-gians to discuss. But what has a military court to do withit? Not to add that for us any possible investigation of it iscut off by the lasting tongue- tie of—him—in yonder,”again designating the mortuary stateroom. “The prisoner’sdeed,—with that alone we have to do.”To this, and particularly the closing reiteration, the ma-rine soldier knowing not how aptly to reply, sadly ab-stained from saying aught. The First Lieutenant who atthe outset had not unnaturally assumed primacy in the
66Billy Buddcourt, now overrulingly instructed by a glance from Cap-tain Vere, a glance more effective than words, resumedthat primacy. Turning to the prisoner, “Budd,” he said,and scarce in equable tones, “Budd, if you have aughtfurther to say for yourself, say it now.”Upon this the young sailor turned another quick glancetoward Captain Vere; then, as taking a hint from that as-pect, a hint confirming his own instinct that silence wasnow best, replied to the Lieutenant, “I have said all, Sir.”The marine—the same who had been the sentinel with-out the cabin-door at the time that the Foretopman fol-lowed by the Master-at-arms, entered it—he, standingby the sailor throughout these judicial proceedings, wasnow directed to take him back to the after compartmentoriginally assigned to the prisoner and his custodian. Asthe twain disappeared from view, the three officers aspartially liberated from some inward constraint associ-ated with Billy’s mere presence, simultaneously stirred intheir seats. They exchanged looks of troubled indecision,yet feeling that decide they must and without long delay.As for Captain Vere, he for the time stood unconsciouslywith his back toward them, apparently in one of his ab-sent fits, gazing out from a sashed port-hole to windwardupon the monotonous blank of the twilight sea. But thecourt’s silence continuing, broken only at moments bybrief consultations in low earnest tones, this seemed toarm him and energize him. Turning, he to-and-fro pacedthe cabin athwart; in the returning ascent to windward,climbing the slant deck in the ship’s lee roll; withoutknowing it symbolizing thus in his action a mind resoluteto surmount difficulties even if against primitive instinctsstrong as the wind and the sea. Presently he came to astand before the three. After scanning their faces he stoodless as mustering his thoughts for expression, than asone inly deliberating how best to put them to well-mean-ing men not intellectually mature, men with whom it wasnecessary to demonstrate certain principles that wereaxioms to himself. Similar impatience as to talking isperhaps one reason that deters some minds from address-ing any popular assemblies.When speak he did, something both in the substance ofwhat he said and his manner of saying it, showed the
67Herman Melvilleinfluence of unshared studies modifying and temperingthe practical training of an active career. This, along withhis phraseology, now and then was suggestive of thegrounds whereon rested that imputation of a certain ped-antry socially alleged against him by certain naval menof wholly practical cast, captains who nevertheless wouldfrankly concede that His Majesty’s Navy mustered no moreefficient officer of their grade than Starry Vere.What he said was to this effect: “Hitherto I have beenbut the witness, little more; and I should hardly thinknow to take another tone, that of your coadjutor, for thetime, did I not perceive in you,—at the crisis too—atroubled hesitancy, proceeding, I doubt not, from theclash of military duty with moral scruple— scruple vital-ized by compassion. For the compassion, how can I oth-erwise than share it? But, mindful of paramount obliga-tions I strive against scruples that may tend to enervatedecision. Not, gentlemen, that I hide from myself thatthe case is an exceptional one. Speculatively regarded, itwell might be referred to a jury of casuists. But for ushere acting not as casuists or moralists, it is a case prac-tical, and under martial law practically to be dealt with.“But your scruples: do they move as in a dusk? Chal-lenge them. Make them advance and declare themselves.Come now: do they import something like this? If, mind-less of palliating circumstances, we are bound to regardthe death of the Master-at-arms as the prisoner’s deed,then does that deed constitute a capital crime whereofthe penalty is a mortal one? But in natural justice isnothing but the prisoner’s overt act to be considered?How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death afellow-creature innocent before God, and whom we feelto be so?—Does that state it aright? You sign sad assent.Well, I too feel that, the full force of that. It is Nature.But do these buttons that we wear attest that our alle-giance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean,which is inviolate Nature primeval, tho’ this be the ele-ment where we move and have our being as sailors, yetas the King’s officers lies our duty in a sphere correspond-ingly natural? So little is that true, that in receiving ourcommissions we in the most important regards ceased tobe natural free-agents. When war is declared are we the
68Billy Buddcommissioned fighters previously consulted? We fight atcommand. If our judgements approve the war, that is butcoincidence. So in other particulars. So now. For supposecondemnation to follow these present proceedings. Wouldit be so much we ourselves that would condemn as it wouldbe martial law operating through us? For that law and therigour of it, we are not responsible. Our avowed responsi-bility is in this: That however pitilessly that law may oper-ate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it.“But the exceptional in the matter moves the heartswithin you. Even so too is mine moved. But let notwarm hearts betray heads that should be cool. Ashorein a criminal case will an upright judge allow himselfoff the bench to be waylaid by some tender kinswomanof the accused seeking to touch him with her tearfulplea? Well the heart here denotes the feminine in manis as that piteous woman, and hard tho’ it be, she musthere be ruled out.”He paused, earnestly studying them for a moment;then resumed.“But something in your aspect seems to urge that it isnot solely the heart that moves in you, but also the con-science, the private conscience. But tell me whether ornot, occupying the position we do, private conscienceshould not yield to that imperial one formulated in thecode under which alone we officially proceed?”Here the three men moved in their seats, less convincedthan agitated by the course of an argument troubling butthe more the spontaneous conflict within.Perceiving which, the speaker paused for a moment;then abruptly changing his tone, went on.“To steady us a bit, let us recur to the facts.—In war-time at sea a man-of-war’s-man strikes his superior ingrade, and the blow kills. Apart from its effect, the blowitself is, according to the Articles of War, a capital crime.Furthermore—”“Ay, Sir,” emotionally broke in the officer of marines,“in one sense it was. But surely Budd purposed neithermutiny nor homicide.”“Surely not, my good man. And before a court less arbi-trary and more merciful than a martial one, that pleawould largely extenuate. At the Last Assizes it shall ac-
69Herman Melvillequit. But how here? We proceed under the law of theMutiny Act. In feature no child can resemble his fathermore than that Act resembles in spirit the thing fromwhich it derives—War. In His Majesty’s service—in thisship indeed—there are Englishmen forced to fight forthe King against their will. Against their conscience, foraught we know. Tho’ as their fellow-creatures some of usmay appreciate their position, yet as navy officers, whatreck we of it? Still less recks the enemy. Our impressedmen he would fain cut down in the same swath with ourvolunteers. As regards the enemy’s naval conscripts, someof whom may even share our own abhorrence of theregicidal French Directory, it is the same on our side. Warlooks but to the frontage, the appearance. And the Mu-tiny Act, War’s child, takes after the father. Budd’s intentor non-intent is nothing to the purpose.“But while, put to it by these anxieties in you which Ican not but respect, I only repeat myself—while thusstrangely we prolong proceedings that should be sum-mary—the enemy may be sighted and an engagementresult. We must do; and one of two things must we do—condemn or let go.”“Can we not convict and yet mitigate the penalty?”asked the junior Lieutenant here speaking, and falter-ingly, for the first.“Lieutenant, were that clearly lawful for us under thecircumstances, consider the consequences of such clem-ency. The people” (meaning the ship’s company) “havenative-sense; most of them are familiar with our navalusage and tradition; and how would they take it? Evencould you explain to them—which our official positionforbids—they, long moulded by arbitrary discipline havenot that kind of intelligent responsiveness that mightqualify them to comprehend and discriminate. No, to thepeople the Foretopman’s deed, however it be worded inthe announcement, will be plain homicide committed ina flagrant act of mutiny. What penalty for that shouldfollow, they know. But it does not follow. Why? they willruminate. You know what sailors are. Will they not revertto the recent outbreak at the Nore? Ay. They know thewell-founded alarm—the panic it struck throughout En-gland. Your clement sentence they would account pusil-
70Billy Buddlanimous. They would think that we flinch, that we areafraid of them—afraid of practising a lawful rigour sin-gularly demanded at this juncture lest it should provokenew troubles. What shame to us such a conjecture ontheir part, and how deadly to discipline. You see then,whither, prompted by duty and the law, I steadfastly drive.But I beseech you, my friends, do not take me amiss. Ifeel as you do for this unfortunate boy. But did he knowour hearts, I take him to be of that generous nature thathe would feel even for us on whom in this military neces-sity so heavy a compulsion is laid.”With that, crossing the deck he resumed his place bythe sashed port-hole, tacitly leaving the three to come toa decision. On the cabin’s opposite side the troubled courtsat silent. Loyal lieges, plain and practical, though atbottom they dissented from some points Captain Verehad put to them, they were without the faculty, hardlyhad the inclination, to gainsay one whom they felt to bean earnest man, one too not less their superior in mindthan in naval rank. But it is not improbable that evensuch of his words as were not without influence overthem, less came home to them than his closing appeal totheir instinct as sea-officers in the forethought he threwout as to the practical consequences to discipline, consid-ering the unconfirmed tone of the fleet at the time, shoulda man-of-war’s-man’s violent killing at sea of a superior ingrade be allowed to pass for aught else than a capitalcrime demanding prompt infliction of the penalty.Not unlikely they were brought to something more orless akin to that harassed frame of mind which in the year1842 actuated the Commander of the U.S. brig-of-warSomers to resolve, under the so-called Articles of War, Ar-ticles modelled upon the English Mutiny Act, to resolveupon the execution at sea of a midshipman and two petty-officers as mutineers designing the seizure of the brig.Which resolution was carried out though in a time of peaceand within not many days’ of home. An act vindicated by anaval court of inquiry subsequently convened ashore. His-tory, and here cited without comment. True, the circum-stances on board the Somers were different from those onboard the Indomitable. But the urgency felt, well-warrantedor otherwise, was much the same.
71Herman MelvilleSays a writer whom few know, “Forty years after a battleit is easy for a non-combatant to reason about how itought to have been fought. It is another thing personallyand under fire to direct the fighting while involved in theobscuring smoke of it. Much so with respect to otheremergencies involving considerations both practical andmoral, and when it is imperative promptly to act. Thegreater the fog the more it imperils the steamer, andspeed is put on tho’ at the hazard of running somebodydown. Little ween the snug card-players in the cabin ofthe responsibilities of the sleepless man on the bridge.”In brief, Billy Budd was formally convicted and sentencedto be hung at the yard-arm in the early morning watch, itbeing now night. Otherwise, as is customary in such cases,the sentence would forthwith have been carried out. Inwar-time on the field or in the fleet, a mortal punish-ment decreed by a drum-head court—on the field some-times decreed by but a nod from the General—followswithout delay on the heel of conviction without appeal.Chapter 22It was Captain Vere himself who of his own motioncommunicated the finding of the court to the pris-oner; for that purpose going to the compartmentwhere he was in custody and bidding the marine there towithdraw for the time.Beyond the communication of the sentence what tookplace at this interview was never known. But in view ofthe character of the twain briefly closeted in that state-room, each radically sharing in the rarer qualities of ournature—so rare indeed as to be all but incredible to av-erage minds however much cultivated—some conjecturesmay be ventured.It would have been in consonance with the spirit ofCaptain Vere should he on this occasion have concealednothing from the condemned one—should he indeed havefrankly disclosed to him the part he himself had playedin bringing about the decision, at the same time reveal-ing his actuating motives. On Billy’s side it is not im-probable that such a confession would have been received
72Billy Buddin much the same spirit that prompted it. Not without asort of joy indeed he might have appreciated the braveopinion of him implied in his Captain’s making such aconfidant of him. Nor, as to the sentence itself could hehave been insensible that it was imparted to him as toone not afraid to die. Even more may have been. CaptainVere in the end may have developed the passion some-times latent under an exterior stoical or indifferent. Hewas old enough to have been Billy’s father. The austeredevotee of military duty, letting himself melt back intowhat remains primeval in our formalized humanity, mayin the end have caught Billy to his heart even as Abrahammay have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutelyoffering him up in obedience to the exacting behest. Butthere is no telling the sacrament, seldom if in any caserevealed to the gadding world, wherever under circum-stances at all akin to those here attempted to be setforth, two of great Nature’s nobler order embrace. Thereis privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor, and holyoblivion, the sequel to each diviner magnanimity, provi-dentially covers all at last.The first to encounter Captain Vere in act of leaving thecompartment was the senior Lieutenant. The face he be-held, for the moment one expressive of the agony of thestrong, was to that officer, tho’ a man of fifty, a startlingrevelation. That the condemned one suffered less thanhe who mainly had effected the condemnation was ap-parently indicated by the former’s exclamation in the scenesoon perforce to be touched upon.
73Herman MelvilleChapter 23Of a series of incidents within a brief term rapidlyfollowing each other, the adequate narration maytake up a term less brief, especially if explana-tion or comment here and there seem requisite to thebetter understanding of such incidents. Between the en-trance into the cabin of him who never left it alive, andhim who when he did leave it left it as one condemned todie; between this and the closeted interview just given,less than an hour and a half had elapsed. It was an inter-val long enough however to awaken speculations amongno few of the ship’s company as to what it was that couldbe detaining in the cabin the Master-at-arms and thesailor; for a rumor that both of them had been seen toenter it and neither of them had been seen to emerge,this rumor had got abroad upon the gun decks and in thetops; the people of a great war-ship being in one respectlike villagers taking microscopic note of every outwardmovement or non-movement going on. When thereforein weather not at all tempestuous all hands were calledin the second dog-watch, a summons under such circum-stances not usual in those hours, the crew were not whollyunprepared for some announcement extraordinary, onehaving connection too with the continued absence ofthe two men from their wonted haunts.There was a moderate sea at the time; and the moon,newly risen and near to being at its full, silvered thewhite spar-deck wherever not blotted by the clear-cutshadows horizontally thrown of fixtures and moving men.On either side of the quarter-deck, the marine guard un-der arms was drawn up; and Captain Vere standing in hisplace surrounded by all the ward-room officers, addressedhis men. In so doing his manner showed neither morenor less than that properly pertaining to his supremeposition aboard his own ship. In clear terms and concisehe told them what had taken place in the cabin; that theMaster-at- arms was dead; that he who had killed himhad been already tried by a summary court and condemnedto death; and that the execution would take place in theearly morning watch. The word mutiny was not named inwhat he said. He refrained too from making the occasion
74Billy Buddan opportunity for any preachment as to the maintenanceof discipline, thinking perhaps that under existing cir-cumstances in the navy the consequence of violating dis-cipline should be made to speak for itself.Their Captain’s announcement was listened to by thethrong of standing sailors in a dumbness like that of aseated congregation of believers in hell listening to theclergyman’s announcement of his Calvinistic text.At the close, however, a confused murmur went up. Itbegan to wax. All but instantly, then, at a sign, it waspierced and suppressed by shrill whistles of the Boat-swain and his Mates piping down one watch.To be prepared for burial Claggart’s body was deliveredto certain petty-officers of his mess. And here, not toclog the sequel with lateral matters, it may be added thatat a suitable hour, the Master-at-arms was committed tothe sea with every funeral honor properly belonging tohis naval grade.In this proceeding as in every public one growing outof the tragedy, strict adherence to usage was observed.Nor in any point could it have been at all deviated from,either with respect to Claggart or Billy Budd, withoutbegetting undesirable speculations in the ship’s company,sailors, and more particularly men-of- war’s-men, beingof all men the greatest sticklers for usage.For similar cause, all communication between CaptainVere and the condemned one ended with the closetedinterview already given, the latter being now surrenderedto the ordinary routine preliminary to the end. This transferunder guard from the Captain’s quarters was effected with-out unusual precautions— at least no visible ones.If possible, not to let the men so much as surmise thattheir officers anticipate aught amiss from them is thetacit rule in a military ship. And the more that some sortof trouble should really be apprehended the more do theofficers keep that apprehension to themselves; tho’ notthe less unostentatious vigilance may be augmented.In the present instance the sentry placed over the pris-oner had strict orders to let no one have communicationwith him but the Chaplain. And certain unobtrusive mea-sures were taken absolutely to insure this point.
75Herman MelvilleChapter 24In a seventy-four of the old order the deck known asthe upper gun deck was the one covered over by thespar-deck which last though not without its arma-ment was for the most part exposed to the weather. Ingeneral it was at all hours free from hammocks; those ofthe crew swinging on the lower gun deck, and berth-deck, the latter being not only a dormitory but also theplace for the stowing of the sailors’ bags, and on bothsides lined with the large chests or movable pantries ofthe many messes of the men.On the starboard side of the Indomitable’s upper gundeck, behold Billy Budd under sentry, lying prone in irons,in one of the bays formed by the regular spacing of theguns comprising the batteries on either side. All thesepieces were of the heavier calibre of that period. Mountedon lumbering wooden carriages they were hampered withcumbersome harness of breechen and strong side-tacklesfor running them out. Guns and carriages, together withthe long rammers and shorter lintstocks lodged in loopsoverhead— all these, as customary, were painted black;and the heavy hempen breechens, tarred to the sametint, wore the like livery of the undertakers. In contrastwith the funereal hue of these surroundings the pronesailor’s exterior apparel, white jumper and white ducktrousers, each more or less soiled, dimly glimmered inthe obscure light of the bay like a patch of discoloredsnow in early April lingering at some upland cave’s blackmouth. In effect he is already in his shroud or the gar-ments that shall serve him in lieu of one. Over him, butscarce illuminating him, two battle-lanterns swing fromtwo massive beams of the deck above. Fed with the oilsupplied by the war-contractors (whose gains, honest orotherwise, are in every land an anticipated portion of theharvest of death), with flickering splashes of dirty yellowlight they pollute the pale moonshine all but ineffectu-ally struggling in obstructed flecks thro’ the open portsfrom which the tompioned cannon protrude. Other lan-terns at intervals serve but to bring out somewhat theobscurer bays which, like small confessionals or side-chap-els in a cathedral, branch from the long dim-vistaed broad
76Billy Buddaisle between the two batteries of that covered tier.Such was the deck where now lay the Handsome Sailor.Through the rose-tan of his complexion, no pallor couldhave shown. It would have taken days of sequestrationfrom the winds and the sun to have brought about theeffacement of that. But the skeleton in the cheekboneat the point of its angle was just beginning delicatelyto be defined under the warm-tinted skin. In fervid heartsself-contained, some brief experiences devour our hu-man tissue as secret fire in a ship’s hold consumes cot-ton in the bale.But now lying between the two guns, as nipped in thevice of fate, Billy’s agony, mainly proceeding from a gen-erous young heart’s virgin experience of the diabolicalincarnate and effective in some men—the tension of thatagony was over now. It survived not the something heal-ing in the closeted interview with Captain Vere. Withoutmovement, he lay as in a trance. That adolescent expres-sion previously noted as his, taking on something akin tothe look of a slumbering child in the cradle when thewarm hearth-glow of the still chamber at night plays onthe dimples that at whiles mysteriously form in the cheek,silently coming and going there. For now and then in thegyved one’s trance a serene happy light born of somewandering reminiscence or dream would diffuse itself overhis face, and then wane away only anew to return.The Chaplain coming to see him and finding him thus,and perceiving no sign that he was conscious of his pres-ence, attentively regarded him for a space, then slippingaside, withdrew for the time, peradventure feeling thateven he the minister of Christ, tho’ receiving his stipendfrom Mars, had no consolation to proffer which couldresult in a peace transcending that which he beheld. Butin the small hours he came again. And the prisoner, nowawake to his surroundings, noticed his approach, and civ-illy, all but cheerfully, welcomed him. But it was to littlepurpose that in the interview following the good mansought to bring Billy Budd to some godly understandingthat he must die, and at dawn. True, Billy himself freelyreferred to his death as a thing close at hand; but it wassomething in the way that children will refer to death ingeneral, who yet among their other sports will play a
77Herman Melvillefuneral with hearse and mourners.Not that like children Billy was incapable of conceivingwhat death really is. No, but he was wholly without irra-tional fear of it, a fear more prevalent in highly civilizedcommunities than those so-called barbarous ones whichin all respects stand nearer to unadulterate Nature. And,as elsewhere said, a barbarian Billy radically was; as muchso, for all the costume, as his countrymen the Britishcaptives, living trophies, made to march in the Romantriumph of Germanicus. Quite as much so as those laterbarbarians, young men probably, and picked specimensamong the earlier British converts to Christianity, at leastnominally such, and taken to Rome (as to-day convertsfrom lesser isles of the sea may be taken to London), ofwhom the Pope of that time, admiring the strangeness oftheir personal beauty so unlike the Italian stamp, theirclear ruddy complexion and curled flaxen locks, exclaimed,“Angles” (meaning English the modern derivative) “Anglesdo you call them? And is it because they look so likeangels?” Had it been later in time one would think thatthe Pope had in mind Fra Angelico’s seraphs some of whom,plucking apples in gardens of the Hesperides, have thefaint rose-bud complexion of the more beautiful Englishgirls.If in vain the good Chaplain sought to impress the youngbarbarian with ideas of death akin to those conveyed inthe skull, dial, and cross-bones on old tombstones; equallyfutile to all appearance were his efforts to bring home tohim the thought of salvation and a Saviour. Billy listened,but less out of awe or reverence perhaps than from acertain natural politeness; doubtless at bottom regard-ing all that in much the same way that most mariners ofhis class take any discourse abstract or out of the com-mon tone of the work-a-day world. And this sailor-way oftaking clerical discourse is not wholly unlike the way inwhich the pioneer of Christianity full of transcendentmiracles was received long ago on tropic isles by anysuperior savage so called—a Tahitian say of Captain Cook’stime or shortly after that time. Out of natural courtesy hereceived, but did not appropriate. It was like a gift placedin the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fin-gers do not close.
78Billy BuddBut the Indomitable’s Chaplain was a discreet man pos-sessing the good sense of a good heart. So he insistednot in his vocation here. At the instance of Captain Vere,a lieutenant had apprised him of pretty much everythingas to Billy; and since he felt that innocence was even abetter thing than religion wherewith to go to Judgement,he reluctantly withdrew; but in his emotion not withoutfirst performing an act strange enough in an Englishman,and under the circumstances yet more so in any regularpriest. Stooping over, he kissed on the fair cheek hisfellow-man, a felon in martial law, one who though onthe confines of death he felt he could never convert to adogma; nor for all that did he fear for his future.Marvel not that having been made acquainted with theyoung sailor’s essential innocence (an irruption of her-etic thought hard to suppress) the worthy man lifted nota finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martialdiscipline. So to do would not only have been as idle asinvoking the desert, but would also have been an auda-cious transgression of the bounds of his function, one asexactly prescribed to him by military law as that of theboatswain or any other naval officer. Bluntly put, a chap-lain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in thehost of the God of War—Mars. As such, he is as incongru-ous as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas. Whythen is he there? Because he indirectly subserves thepurpose attested by the cannon; because too he lendsthe sanction of the religion of the meek to that whichpractically is the abrogation of everything but brute Force.
79Herman MelvilleChapter 25The night, so luminous on the spar-deck, but otherwise on the cavernous ones below, levels so likethe tiered galleries in a coal-mine—the luminousnight passed away. But, like the prophet in the chariotdisappearing in heaven and dropping his mantle to Elisha,the withdrawing night transferred its pale robe to thebreaking day. A meek shy light appeared in the East, wherestretched a diaphanous fleece of white furrowed vapor.That light slowly waxed. Suddenly eight bells was struckaft, responded to by one louder metallic stroke from for-ward. It was four o’clock in the morning. Instantly thesilver whistles were heard summoning all hands to wit-ness punishment. Up through the great hatchways rimmedwith racks of heavy shot, the watch below came pouring,overspreading with the watch already on deck the spacebetween the main-mast and fore-mast including that oc-cupied by the capacious launch and the black booms tieredon either side of it, boat and booms making a summit ofobservation for the powder- boys and younger tars. Adifferent group comprising one watch of topmen leanedover the rail of that sea-balcony, no small one in a sev-enty-four, looking down on the crowd below. Man or boy,none spake but in whisper, and few spake at all. CaptainVere—as before, the central figure among the assembledcommissioned officers—stood nigh the break of the poop-deck facing forward. Just below him on the quarter-deckthe marines in full equipment were drawn up much as atthe scene of the promulgated sentence.At sea in the old time, the execution by halter of amilitary sailor was generally from the fore-yard. In thepresent instance, for special reasons the main-yard wasassigned. Under an arm of that lee-yard the prisoner waspresently brought up, the Chaplain attending him. It wasnoted at the time and remarked upon afterwards, that inthis final scene the good man evinced little or nothing ofthe perfunctory. Brief speech indeed he had with the con-demned one, but the genuine Gospel was less on histongue than in his aspect and manner towards him. Thefinal preparations personal to the latter being speedilybrought to an end by two boatswain’s mates, the con-
80Billy Buddsummation impended. Billy stood facing aft. At thepenultimate moment, his words, his only ones, wordswholly unobstructed in the utterance were these—”Godbless Captain Vere!” Syllables so unanticipated comingfrom one with the ignominious hemp about his neck— aconventional felon’s benediction directed aft towards thequarters of honor; syllables too delivered in the clearmelody of a singing-bird on the point of launching fromthe twig, had a phenomenal effect, not unenhanced bythe rare personal beauty of the young sailor spiritualizednow thro’ late experiences so poignantly profound.Without volition as it were, as if indeed the ship’s popu-lace were but the vehicles of some vocal current electric,with one voice from alow and aloft came a resonant sym-pathetic echo—”God bless Captain Vere!” And yet at thatinstant Billy alone must have been in their hearts, evenas he was in their eyes.At the pronounced words and the spontaneous echothat voluminously rebounded them, Captain Vere, eitherthro’ stoic self-control or a sort of momentary paralysisinduced by emotional shock, stood erectly rigid as a mus-ket in the ship-armorer’s rack.The hull deliberately recovering from the periodic rollto leeward was just regaining an even keel, when the lastsignal, a preconcerted dumb one, was given. At the samemoment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low inthe East, was shot thro’ with a soft glory as of the fleeceof the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simulta-neously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of up-turned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took thefull rose of the dawn.In the pinioned figure, arrived at the yard-end, to thewonder of all no motion was apparent, none save thatcreated by the ship’s motion, in moderate weather somajestic in a great ship ponderously cannoned.
81Herman MelvilleChapter 26When some days afterward in reference to thesingularity just mentioned, the Purser, a ratherruddy rotund person more accurate as an ac-countant than profound as a philosopher, said at mess tothe Surgeon, “What testimony to the force lodged in will-power,” the latter—saturnine, spare and tall, one in whoma discreet causticity went along with a manner less ge-nial than polite, replied, “Your pardon, Mr. Purser. In ahanging scientifically conducted—and under special or-ders I myself directed how Budd’s was to be effected—any movement following the completed suspension andoriginating in the body suspended, such movement indi-cates mechanical spasm in the muscular system. Hencethe absence of that is no more attributable to will-poweras you call it than to horse-power—begging your par-don.”“But this muscular spasm you speak of, is not that in adegree more or less invariable in these cases?”“Assuredly so, Mr. Purser.”“How then, my good sir, do you account for its absencein this instance?”“Mr. Purser, it is clear that your sense of the singularityin this matter equals not mine. You account for it bywhat you call will-power, a term not yet included in thelexicon of science. For me I do not, with my present knowl-edge, pretend to account for it at all. Even should weassume the hypothesis that at the first touch of the hal-yards the action of Budd’s heart, intensified by extraordi-nary emotion at its climax, abruptly stopt—much like awatch when in carelessly winding it up you strain at thefinish, thus snapping the chain—even under that hy-pothesis, how account for the phenomenon that followed?”“You admit then that the absence of spasmodic move-ment was phenomenal.”“It was phenomenal, Mr. Purser, in the sense that itwas an appearance the cause of which is not immediatelyto be assigned.”“But tell me, my dear Sir,” pertinaciously continued theother, “was the man’s death effected by the halter, orwas it a species of euthanasia?”
82Billy Budd“Euthanasia, Mr. Purser, is something like your will-power:I doubt its authenticity as a scientific term— beggingyour pardon again. It is at once imaginative and meta-physical,—in short, Greek. But,” abruptly changing histone, “there is a case in the sick-bay that I do not care toleave to my assistants. Beg your pardon, but excuse me.”And rising from the mess he formally withdrew.Chapter 27The silence at the moment of execution and for amoment or two continuing thereafter, a silence butemphasized by the regular wash of the sea againstthe hull or the flutter of a sail caused by the helmsman’seyes being tempted astray, this emphasized silence wasgradually disturbed by a sound not easily to be verballyrendered. Whoever has heard the freshet-wave of a tor-rent suddenly swelled by pouring showers in tropical moun-tains, showers not shared by the plain; whoever has heardthe first muffled murmur of its sloping advance throughprecipitous woods, may form some conception of the soundnow heard. The seeming remoteness of its source was be-cause of its murmurous indistinctness since it came fromclose-by, even from the men massed on the ship’s opendeck. Being inarticulate, it was dubious in significancefurther than it seemed to indicate some capricious revul-sion of thought or feeling such as mobs ashore are liableto, in the present instance possibly implying a sullen revo-cation on the men’s part of their involuntary echoing of
83Herman MelvilleBilly’s benediction. But ere the murmur had time to waxinto clamour it was met by a strategic command, the moretelling that it came with abrupt unexpectedness.“Pipe down the starboard watch, Boatswain, and seethat they go.”Shrill as the shriek of the sea-hawk the whistles of theBoatswain and his Mates pierced that ominous low sound,dissipating it; and yielding to the mechanism of disci-pline, the throng was thinned by one half. For the re-mainder most of them were set to temporary employ-ments connected with trimming the yards and so forth,business readily to be got up to serve occasion by anyofficer-of-the-deck.Now each proceeding that follows a mortal sentencepronounced at sea by a drum-head court is characterisedby promptitude not perceptibly merging into hurry, tho’bordering that. The hammock, the one which had beenBilly’s bed when alive, having already been ballasted withshot and otherwise prepared to serve for his canvas cof-fin, the last offices of the sea-undertakers, the Sail-Maker’sMates, were now speedily completed. When everythingwas in readiness a second call for all hands made neces-sary by the strategic movement before mentioned wassounded and now to witness burial.The details of this closing formality it needs not togive. But when the tilted plank let slide its freight intothe sea, a second strange human murmur was heard,blended now with another inarticulate sound proceedingfrom certain larger sea-fowl, whose attention having beenattracted by the peculiar commotion in the water result-ing from the heavy sloped dive of the shotted hammockinto the sea, flew screaming to the spot. So near the hulldid they come, that the stridor or bony creak of theirgaunt double-jointed pinions was audible. As the shipunder light airs passed on, leaving the burial-spot astern,they still kept circling it low down with the moving shadowof their outstretched wings and the croaked requiem oftheir cries.Upon sailors as superstitious as those of the age pre-ceding ours, men-of-war’s-men too who had just beheldthe prodigy of repose in the form suspended in air andnow foundering in the deeps; to such mariners the action
84Billy Buddof the sea-fowl, tho’ dictated by mere animal greed forprey, was big with no prosaic significance. An uncertainmovement began among them, in which some encroach-ment was made. It was tolerated but for a moment. Forsuddenly the drum beat to quarters, which familiar soundhappening at least twice every day, had upon the presentoccasion a signal peremptoriness in it. True martial disci-pline long continued superinduces in average man a sortof impulse of docility whose operation at the official soundof command much resembles in its promptitude the ef-fect of an instinct.The drum-beat dissolved the multitude, distributing mostof them along the batteries of the two covered gun decks.There, as wont, the guns’ crews stood by their respectivecannon erect and silent. In due course the First Officer,sword under arm and standing in his place on the quar-ter-deck, formally received the successive reports of thesworded Lieutenants commanding the sections of batter-ies below; the last of which reports being made, thesummed report he delivered with the customary salute tothe Commander. All this occupied time, which in thepresent case, was the object of beating to quarters at anhour prior to the customary one. That such variance fromusage was authorized by an officer like Captain Vere, amartinet as some deemed him, was evidence of the ne-cessity for unusual action implied in what he deemed tobe temporarily the mood of his men. “With mankind,” hewould say, “forms, measured forms are everything; andthat is the import couched in the story of Orpheus withhis lyre spell-binding the wild denizens of the wood.”And this he once applied to the disruption of forms goingon across the Channel and the consequences thereof.At this unwonted muster at quarters, all proceeded asat the regular hour. The band on the quarter- deck playeda sacred air. After which the Chaplain went thro’ the cus-tomary morning service. That done, the drum beat theretreat, and toned by music and religious rites subservingthe discipline and purpose of war, the men in their wontedorderly manner, dispersed to the places allotted themwhen not at the guns.And now it was full day. The fleece of low-hanging va-por had vanished, licked up by the sun that late had so
85Herman Melvilleglorified it. And the circumambient air in the clearnessof its serenity was like smooth marble in the polishedblock not yet removed from the marble-dealer’s yard.Chapter 28The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact.Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its raggededges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt tobe less finished than an architectural finial.How it fared with the Handsome Sailor during the year ofthe Great Mutiny has been faithfully given. But tho’ prop-erly the story ends with his life, something in way of se-quel will not be amiss. Three brief chapters will suffice.In the general re-christening under the Directory of thecraft originally forming the navy of the French monarchy,the St. Louis line-of-battle ship was named the Atheiste.Such a name, like some other substituted ones in the Revo-lutionary fleet, while proclaiming the infidel audacity ofthe ruling power was yet, tho’ not so intended to be, theaptest name, if one consider it, ever given to a war-ship;far more so indeed than the Devastation, the Erebus (theHell) and similar names bestowed upon fighting-ships.
86Billy BuddOn the return-passage to the English fleet from thedetached cruise during which occurred the events alreadyrecorded, the Indomitable fell in with the Atheiste. Anengagement ensued; during which Captain Vere, in theact of putting his ship alongside the enemy with a viewof throwing his boarders across her bulwarks, was hit bya musket-ball from a port-hole of the enemy’s main cabin.More than disabled he dropped to the deck and was car-ried below to the same cock-pit where some of his menalready lay. The senior Lieutenant took command. Underhim the enemy was finally captured and though muchcrippled was by rare good fortune successfully taken intoGibraltar, an English port not very distant from the sceneof the fight. There, Captain Vere with the rest of thewounded was put ashore. He lingered for some days, butthe end came. Unhappily he was cut off too early for theNile and Trafalgar. The spirit that spite its philosophicausterity may yet have indulged in the most secret of allpassions, ambition, never attained to the fulness of fame.Not long before death, while lying under the influence ofthat magical drug which soothing the physical framemysteriously operates on the subtler element in man, hewas heard to murmur words inexplicable to his atten-dant—”Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” That these were not theaccents of remorse, would seem clear from what the at-tendant said to the Indomitable’s senior officer of ma-rines who, as the most reluctant to condemn of the mem-bers of the drum-head court, too well knew, tho’ here hekept the knowledge to himself, who Billy Budd was.
87Herman MelvilleChapter 29Some few weeks after the execution, among othermatters under the head of News from the Mediter-ranean, there appeared in a naval chronicle of thetime, an authorized weekly publication, an account ofthe affair. It was doubtless for the most part written ingood faith, tho’ the medium, partly rumor, through whichthe facts must have reached the writer, served to deflectand in part falsify them. The account was as follows:—“On the tenth of the last month a deplorable occur-rence took place on board H.M.S. Indomitable. JohnClaggart, the ship’s Master-at-arms, discovering that somesort of plot was incipient among an inferior section ofthe ship’s company, and that the ringleader was one Wil-liam Budd; he, Claggart, in the act of arraigning the manbefore the Captain was vindictively stabbed to the heartby the suddenly drawn sheath-knife of Budd.“The deed and the implement employed, sufficientlysuggest that tho’ mustered into the service under an En-glish name the assassin was no Englishman, but one ofthose aliens adopting English cognomens whom thepresent extraordinary necessities of the Service havecaused to be admitted into it in considerable numbers.“The enormity of the crime and the extreme depravity ofthe criminal, appear the greater in view of the character ofthe victim, a middle-aged man respectable and discreet,belonging to that official grade, the petty-officers, uponwhom, as none know better than the commissioned gentle-men, the efficiency of His Majesty’s Navy so largely de-pends. His function was a responsible one, at once oner-ous & thankless, and his fidelity in it the greater becauseof his strong patriotic impulse. In this instance as in somany other instances in these days, the character of thisunfortunate man signally refutes, if refutation were needed,that peevish saying attributed to the late Dr. Johnson,that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.“The criminal paid the penalty of his crime. The promp-titude of the punishment has proved salutary. Nothingamiss is now apprehended aboard H.M.S. Indomitable.”The above, appearing in a publication now long agosuperannuated and forgotten, is all that hitherto has stood
88Billy Buddin human record to attest what manner of men respec-tively were John Claggart and Billy Budd.Chapter 30Everything is for a term remarkable in navies. Anytangible object associated with some striking inci-dent of the service is converted into a monument.The spar from which the Foretopman was suspended, wasfor some few years kept trace of by the blue-jackets. Theirknowledge followed it from ship to dock- yard and againfrom dock-yard to ship, still pursuing it even when atlast reduced to a mere dock-yard boom. To them a chip ofit was as a piece of the Cross. Ignorant tho’ they were ofthe secret facts of the tragedy, and not thinking but thatthe penalty was somehow unavoidably inflicted from thenaval point of view, for all that they instinctively feltthat Billy was a sort of man as incapable of mutiny as ofwilfull murder. They recalled the fresh young image ofthe Handsome Sailor, that face never deformed by a sneeror subtler vile freak of the heart within. Their impressionof him was doubtless deepened by the fact that he wasgone, and in a measure mysteriously gone. At the time,on the gun decks of the Indomitable, the general esti-
89Herman Melvillemate of his nature and its unconscious simplicity eventu-ally found rude utterance from another foretopman, oneof his own watch, gifted, as some sailors are, with anartless poetic temperament; the tarry hands made somelines which after circulating among the shipboard crewfor a while, finally got rudely printed at Portsmouth as aballad. The title given to it was the sailor’s.BILLY IN THE DARBIESGood of the Chaplain to enter Lone BayAnd down on his marrow-bones here and prayFor the likes just o’ me, Billy Budd.—But look:Through the port comes the moon-shine astray!It tips the guard’s cutlas and silvers this nook;But ‘twill die in the dawning of Billy’s last day.A jewel-block they’ll make of me to-morrow,Pendant pearl from the yard-arm-endLike the ear-drop I gave to Bristol Molly—O, ’tis me, not the sentence they’ll suspend.Ay, Ay, Ay, all is up; and I must up toEarly in the morning, aloft from alow.On an empty stomach, now, never it would do.They’ll give me a nibble—bit o’ biscuit ere I go.Sure, a messmate will reach me the last parting cup;But, turning heads away from the hoist and the belay,Heaven knows who will have the running of me up!No pipe to those halyards.—But aren’t it all sham?A blur’s in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am.A hatchet to my hawser? all adrift to go?The drum roll to grog, and Billy never know?But Donald he has promised to stand by the plank;So I’ll shake a friendly hand ere I sink.But—no! It is dead then I’ll be, come to think.I remember Taff the Welshman when he sank.And his cheek it was like the budding pink.But me they’ll lash me in hammock, drop me deep.Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I’ll dream fast asleep.I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there?Just ease this darbies at the wrist, and roll me over fair,I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.THE END

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