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Title: Billy Budd, Sailor (An inside narrative)
Author: Herman Melville
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eBook No.: 0608511.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: November 2006
Date most recently updated: November 2006

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Title: Billy Budd, Sailor (An inside narrative)
Author: Herman Melville

Chapter 1

In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a
stroller along the docks of any considerable sea-port would occasionally
have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war's
men or merchant-sailors in holiday attire ashore on liberty. In certain
instances they would flank, or, like a body-guard quite surround some
superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like
Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation. That signal
object was the "Handsome Sailor" of the less prosaic time alike of the
military and merchant navies. With no perceptible trace of the
vainglorious about him, rather with the off-hand unaffectedness of
natural regality, he seemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his

A somewhat remarkable instance recurs to me. In Liverpool, now half a
century ago, I saw under the shadow of the great dingy street-wall of
Prince's Dock (an obstruction long since removed) a common sailor, so
intensely black that he must needs have been a native African of the
unadulterate blood of Ham. A symmetric figure much above the average
height. The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the
neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big
hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off
his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with
perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humor. In jovial sallies right
and left, his white teeth flashing into he rollicked along, the centre
of a company of his shipmates. These were made up of such an assortment
of tribes and complexions as would have well fitted them to be marched
up by Anacharsis Cloots before the bar of the first French Assembly as
Representatives of the Human Race. At each spontaneous tribute rendered
by the wayfarers to this black pagod of a fellow--the tribute of a pause
and stare, and less frequent an exclamation,--the motley retinue showed
that they took that sort of pride in the evoker of it which the Assyrian
priests doubtless showed for their grand sculptured Bull when the
faithful prostrated themselves.

To return. If in some cases a bit of a nautical Murat in setting forth
his person ashore, the Handsome Sailor of the period in question evinced
nothing of the dandified Billy-be-Damn, an amusing character all but
extinct now, but occasionally to be encountered, and in a form yet more
amusing than the original, at the tiller of the boats on the tempestuous
Erie Canal or, more likely, vaporing in the groggeries along the
tow-path. Invariably a proficient in his perilous calling, he was also
more or less of a mighty boxer or wrestler. It was strength and beauty.
Tales of his prowess were recited. Ashore he was the champion; afloat
the spokesman; on every suitable occasion always foremost. Close-reefing
top-sails in a gale, there he was, astride the weather yard-arm-end,
foot in the Flemish horse as "stirrup," both hands tugging at the
"earring" as at a bridle, in very much the attitude of young Alexander
curbing the fiery Bucephalus. A superb figure, tossed up as 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 the physical make.
Indeed, except as toned by the former, the comeliness and power, always
attractive in masculine conjunction, hardly could have drawn the sort of
honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his
less gifted associates.

Such a cynosure, at least in aspect, and something such too in nature,
though with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds,
was welkin-eyed Billy Budd, or Baby Budd, as more familiarly under
circumstances hereafter to be given he at last came to be called, aged
twenty-one, a foretopman of the British fleet toward the close of the
last decade of the eighteenth century. It was not very long prior to the
time of the narration that follows that he had entered the King's
Service, having been impressed on the Narrow Seas from a homeward-bound
English merchantman into a seventy-four outward-bound, H.M.S.
Indomitable; which ship, as was not unusual in those hurried days,
having been obliged to put to sea short of her proper complement of men.
Plump upon Billy at first sight in the gangway the boarding officer
Lieutenant Ratcliff pounced, even before the merchantman's crew was
formally mustered on the quarter-deck for his deliberate inspection. And
him only he elected. For whether it was because the other men when
ranged before him showed to ill advantage after Billy, or whether he had
some scruples in view of the merchantman being rather short-handed,
however it might be, the officer contented himself with his first
spontaneous choice. To the surprise of the ship's company, though much
to the Lieutenant's satisfaction, Billy made no demur. But, indeed, any
demur would have been as idle as the protest of a goldfinch popped into
a cage.

Noting this uncomplaining acquiescence, all but cheerful one might say,
the shipmates turned a surprised glance of silent reproach at the
sailor. The Shipmaster was one of those worthy mortals found in every
vocation, even the humbler ones--the sort of person whom everybody
agrees in calling "a respectable man." And--nor so strange to report as
it may appear to be--though a ploughman of the troubled waters,
life-long contending with the intractable elements, there was nothing
this honest soul at heart loved better than simple peace and quiet. For
the rest, he was fifty or thereabouts, a little inclined to corpulence,
a prepossessing face, unwhiskered, and of an agreeable color--a rather
full face, humanely intelligent in expression. On a fair day with a fair
wind and all going well, a certain musical chime in his voice seemed to
be the veritable unobstructed outcome of the innermost man. He had much
prudence, much conscientiousness, and there were occasions when these
virtues were the cause of overmuch disquietude in him. On a passage, so
long as his craft was in any proximity to land, no sleep for Captain
Graveling. He took to heart those serious responsibilities not so
heavily borne by some shipmasters.

Now while Billy Budd was down in the forecastle getting his kit
together, the Indomitable's Lieutenant, burly and bluff, nowise
disconcerted by Captain Graveling's omitting to proffer the customary
hospitalities on an occasion so unwelcome to him, an omission simply
caused by preoccupation of thought, unceremoniously invited himself into
the cabin, and also to a flask from the spirit-locker, a receptacle
which his experienced eye instantly discovered. In fact he was one of
those sea-dogs in whom all the hardship and peril of naval life in the
great prolonged wars of his time never impaired the natural instinct for
sensuous enjoyment. His duty he always faithfully did; but duty is
sometimes a dry obligation, and he was for irrigating its aridity,
whensoever possible, with a fertilizing decoction of strong waters. For
the cabin's proprietor there was nothing left but to play the part of
the enforced host with whatever grace and alacrity were practicable. As
necessary adjuncts to the flask, he silently placed tumbler and
water-jug before the irrepressible guest. But excusing himself from
partaking just then, he dismally watched the unembarrassed officer
deliberately diluting his grog a little, then tossing it off in three
swallows, pushing the empty tumbler away, yet not so far as to be beyond
easy reach, at the same time settling himself in his seat and smacking
his lips with high satisfaction, 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 drawing back the tumbler
preliminary to a replenishing; "Yes, I know. Sorry."

"Beg pardon, but you don't understand, Lieutenant. See here now. Before
I shipped that young fellow, my forecastle was a rat-pit of quarrels. It
was black times, I tell you, aboard the Rights here. I was worried to
that degree my pipe had no comfort for me. But Billy came; and it was
like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy. Not that he
preached to them or said or did anything in particular; but a virtue
went out of him, sugaring the sour ones. They took to him like hornets
to treacle; all but the buffer of the gang, the big shaggy chap with the
fire-red whiskers. He indeed out of envy, perhaps, of the newcomer, and
thinking such a 'sweet and pleasant fellow,' as he mockingly designated
him to the others, could hardly have the spirit of a game-cock, must
needs bestir himself in trying to get up an ugly row with him. Billy
forebore with him and reasoned with him in a pleasant way--he is
something like myself, Lieutenant, to whom aught like a quarrel is
hateful--but nothing served. So, in the second dog-watch one day the Red
Whiskers in presence of the others, under pretence of showing Billy just
whence a sirloin steak was cut--for the fellow had once been a
butcher--insultingly gave him a dig under the ribs. Quick as lightning
Billy let fly his arm. I dare say he never meant to do quite as much as
he did, but anyhow he gave the burly fool a terrible drubbing. It took
about half a minute, I should think. And, lord bless you, the lubber was
astonished at the celerity. And will you believe it, Lieutenant, the Red
Whiskers now really loves Billy--loves him, or is the biggest hypocrite
that ever I heard of. But they all love him. Some of 'em do his washing,
darn his old trousers for him; the carpenter is at odd times making a
pretty little chest of drawers for him. Anybody will do anything for
Billy Budd; and it's the happy family here. But now, Lieutenant, if that
young fellow goes--I know how it will be aboard the Rights. Not again
very soon shall I, coming up from dinner, lean over the capstan smoking
a quiet pipe--no, not very soon again, I think. Ay, Lieutenant, you are
going to take away the jewel of 'em; you are going to take away my
peacemaker!" And with that the good soul had really some ado in checking
a rising sob.

"Well," said the officer who had listened with amused interest to all
this, and now waxing merry with his tipple; "Well, blessed are the
peacemakers, especially the fighting peacemakers! And such are the
seventy--four beauties some of which you see poking their noses out of
the port-holes of yonder war-ship lying-to for me," pointing thro' the
cabin window at the Indomitable. "But courage! don't look so
downhearted, man. Why, I pledge you in advance the royal approbation.
Rest assured that His Majesty will be delighted to know that in a time
when his hard tack is not sought for by sailors with such avidity as
should be; a time also when some shipmasters privily resent the
borrowing from them a tar or two for the service; His Majesty, I say,
will be delighted to learn that one shipmaster at least cheerfully
surrenders to the King, the flower of his flock, a sailor who with equal
loyalty makes no dissent.--But where's my beauty? Ah," looking through
the cabin's open door, "Here he comes; and, by Jove--lugging along his
chest--Apollo with his portmanteau!--My man," stepping out to him, "you
can't take that big box aboard a war-ship. The boxes there are mostly
shot-boxes. Put your duds in a bag, lad. Boot and saddle for the
cavalryman, bag and hammock for the man-of-war's man."

The transfer from chest to bag was made. And, after seeing his man into
the cutter and then following him down, the Lieutenant pushed off from
the Rights-of-Man. That was the merchant-ship's name; tho' by her master
and crew abbreviated in sailor fashion into The Rights. The hard-headed
Dundee owner was a staunch admirer of Thomas Paine whose book in
rejoinder to Burke's arraignment of the French Revolution had then been
published for some time and had gone everywhere. In christening his
vessel after the title of Paine's volume, the man of Dundee was
something like his contemporary shipowner, Stephen Girard of
Philadelphia, whose sympathies, alike with his native land and its
liberal philosophers, he evinced by naming his ships after Voltaire,
Diderot, and so forth.

But now, when the boat swept under the merchantman's stern, and officer
and oarsmen were noting--some bitterly and others with a grin,--the name
emblazoned there; just then it was that the new recruit jumped up from
the bow where the coxswain had directed him to sit, and waving his hat
to his silent shipmates sorrowfully looking over at him from the
taffrail, bade the lads a genial good-bye. Then, making a salutation as
to the ship herself, "And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man."

"Down, Sir!" roared the Lieutenant, instantly assuming all the rigour of
his rank, though with difficulty repressing a smile.

To be sure, Billy's action was a terrible breach of naval decorum. But
in that decorum he had never been instructed; in consideration of which
the Lieutenant would hardly have been so energetic in reproof but for
the concluding farewell to the ship. This he rather took as meant to
convey a covert sally on the new recruit's part, a sly slur at
impressment in general, and that of himself in especial. And yet, more
likely, if satire it was in effect, it was hardly so by intention, for
Billy, tho' happily endowed with the gayety of high health, youth, and a
free heart, was yet by no means of a satirical turn. The will to it and
the sinister dexterity were alike wanting. To deal in double meanings
and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature.

As to his enforced enlistment, that he seemed to take pretty much as he
was wont to take any vicissitude of weather. 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 martial excitements.

Aboard the Indomitable our merchant-sailor was forthwith rated as an
able-seaman and assigned to the starboard watch of the fore-top. He was
soon at home in the service, not at all disliked for his unpretentious
good looks and a sort of genial happy-go-lucky air. No merrier man in
his mess: in marked contrast to certain other individuals included like
himself among the impressed portion of the ship's company; for these
when not actively employed were sometimes, and more particularly in the
last dog-watch when the drawing near of twilight induced revery, apt to
fall into a saddish mood which in some partook of sullenness. But they
were not so young as our foretopman, and no few of them must have known
a hearth of some sort; others may have had wives and children left, too
probably, in uncertain circumstances, and hardly any but must have had
acknowledged kith and kin, while for Billy, as will shortly be seen, his
entire family was practically invested in himself.

Chapter 2

Though our new-made foretopman was well received in the top and on the
gun decks, hardly here was he that cynosure he had previously been among
those 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 developed frame, in aspect
looked even younger than he really was, owing to a lingering adolescent
expression in the as yet smooth face, all but feminine in purity of
natural complexion, but where, thanks to his seagoing, the lily was
quite suppressed and the rose had some ado visibly to flush through the

To one essentially such a novice in the complexities of factitious life,
the abrupt transition from his former and simpler sphere to the ampler
and more knowing world of a great war-ship; this might well have abashed
him had there been any conceit or vanity in his composition. Among her
miscellaneous multitude, the Indomitable mustered several individuals
who, however inferior in grade, were of no common natural stamp, sailors
more signally susceptive of that air which continuous martial discipline
and repeated presence in battle can in some degree impart even to the
average man. As the Handsome Sailor, Billy Budd's position aboard the
seventy-four was something analogous to that of a rustic beauty
transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the
highborn dames of the court. But this change of circumstances he scarce
noted. As little did he observe that something about him provoked an
ambiguous smile in one or two harder faces among the blue-jackets. Nor
less unaware was he of the peculiar favorable effect his person and
demeanour had upon the more intelligent gentlemen of the quarter-deck.
Nor could this well have been otherwise. Cast in a mould peculiar to the
finest physical examples of those Englishmen in whom the Saxon strain
would seem not at all to partake of any Norman or other admixture, he
showed in face that humane look of reposeful good nature which the Greek
sculptor in some instances gave to his heroic strong man, Hercules. But
this again was subtly modified by another and pervasive quality. The
ear, small and shapely, the arch of the foot, the curve in mouth and
nostril, even the indurated hand dyed to the orange-tawny of the
toucan's bill, a hand telling alike of the halyards and tar-bucket; but,
above all, something in the mobile expression, and every chance attitude
and movement, something suggestive of a mother eminently favored by Love
and the Graces; all this strangely indicated a lineage in direct
contradiction to his lot. The mysteriousness here became less mysterious
through a matter--of-fact elicited when Billy, at the capstan, was being
formally mustered into the service. Asked by the officer, a small brisk
little gentleman, as it chanced among other questions, his place of
birth, he replied, "Please, Sir, I don't know."

"Don't know where you were born?--Who was your father?"

"God knows, Sir."

Struck by the straightforward simplicity of these replies, the officer
next asked, "Do you know anything about your beginning?"

"No, Sir. But I have heard that I was found in a pretty silklined basket
hanging one morning from the knocker of a good man's door in Bristol."

"Found say you? Well," throwing back his head and looking up and down
the new recruit; "Well, it turns out to have been a pretty good find.
Hope they'll find some more like you, my man; the fleet sadly needs

Yes, Billy Budd was a foundling, a presumable by-blow, and, evidently,
no ignoble one. Noble descent was as evident in him as in a blood horse.

For the rest, with little or no sharpness of faculty or any trace of the
wisdom of the serpent, nor yet quite a dove, he possessed that kind and
degree of intelligence going along with the unconventional rectitude of
a sound human creature, one to whom not yet has been proffered the
questionable apple of knowledge. He was illiterate; he could not read,
but he could sing, and like the illiterate nightingale was sometimes the
composer of his own song.

Of self-consciousness he seemed to have little or none, or about as much
as we may reasonably impute to a dog of Saint Bernard's breed.

Habitually living with the elements and knowing little more of the land
than as a beach, or, rather, that portion of the terraqueous globe
providentially set apart for dance-houses, doxies and tapsters, in short
what sailors call a "fiddlers'-green," his simple nature remained
unsophisticated by those moral obliquities which are not in every case
incompatible with that manufacturable thing known as respectability. But
are sailors, frequenters of "fiddlers'-greens," without vices? No; but
less often than with landsmen do their vices, so called, partake of
crookedness of heart, seeming less to proceed from viciousness than
exuberance of vitality after long constraint; frank manifestations in
accordance with natural law. By his original constitution aided by the
cooperating influences of his lot, Billy in many respects was little
more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam
presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into
his company.

And here be it submitted that apparently going to corroborate the
doctrine of man's fall, a doctrine now popularly ignored, it is
observable that where certain virtues pristine and unadulterate
peculiarly characterize anybody in the external uniform of civilization,
they will upon scrutiny seem not to be derived from custom or
convention, but rather to be out of keeping with these, as if indeed
exceptionally transmitted from a period prior to Cain's city and
citified man. The character marked by such qualities has to an
unvitiated taste an untampered-with flavor like that of berries, while
the man thoroughly civilized, even in a fair specimen of the breed, has
to the same moral palate a questionable smack as of a compounded wine.
To any stray inheritor of these primitive qualities found, like Caspar
Hauser, wandering dazed in any Christian capital of our time, the
good-natured poet's famous invocation, near two thousand years ago, of
the good 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 masculine beauty as one can
expect anywhere to see; nevertheless, like the beautiful woman in one of
Hawthorne's minor tales, there was just one thing amiss in him. No
visible blemish, indeed, as with the lady; no, but an occasional
liability to a vocal defect. Though in the hour of elemental uproar or
peril he was everything that a sailor should be, yet under sudden
provocation of strong heart-feeling, his voice otherwise singularly
musical, as if expressive of the harmony within, was apt to develop an
organic hesitancy, in fact, more or less of a stutter or even worse. In
this particular Billy was a striking instance that the arch interferer,
the envious marplot of Eden, still has more or less to do with every
human consignment to this planet of earth. In every case, one way or
another he is sure to slip in his little card, as much as to remind
us--I too have a hand here.

The avowal of such an imperfection in the Handsome Sailor should be
evidence not alone that he is not presented as a conventional hero, but
also that the story in which he is the main figure is no romance.

Chapter 3

At the time of Billy Budd's arbitrary enlistment into the Indomitable
that ship was on her way to join the Mediterranean fleet. No long time
elapsed before the junction was effected. As one of that fleet the
seventy-four participated in its movements, tho' at times, on account of
her superior sailing qualities, in the absence of frigates, despatched
on separate duty as a scout and at times on less temporary service. But
with all this the story has little concernment, restricted as it is to
the inner life of one particular ship and the career of an individual

It was the summer of 1797. In the April of that year had occurred the
commotion at Spithead followed in May by a second and yet more serious
outbreak in the fleet at the Nore. The latter is known, and without
exaggeration in the epithet, as the Great Mutiny. It was indeed a
demonstration more menacing to England than the contemporary manifestoes
and conquering and proselyting armies of the French Directory. To the
British Empire the Nore Mutiny was what a strike in the fire-brigade
would be to London threatened by general arson. In a crisis when the
kingdom might well have anticipated the famous signal that some years
later published along the naval line of battle what it was that upon
occasion England expected of Englishmen; that was the time when at the
mast-heads of the three-deckers and seventy-fours moored in her own
roadstead--a fleet, the right arm of a Power then all but the sole free
conservative one of the Old World--the blue-jackets, to be numbered by
thousands, ran up with huzzas the British colors with the union and
cross wiped out; by that cancellation transmuting the flag of founded
law and freedom defined, into the enemy's red meteor of unbridled and
unbounded revolt. Reasonable discontent growing out of practical
grievances in the fleet had been ignited into irrational combustion, as
by live cinders blown across the Channel from France in flames.

The event converted into irony for a time those spirited strains of
Dibdin--as a song-writer no mean auxiliary to the English Government at
the European conjuncture--strains celebrating, among other things, the
patriotic devotion of the British tar: "And as for my life, 'tis the

Such an episode in the Island's grand naval story her naval historians
naturally abridge; one of them (G.P.R. James) candidly acknowledging
that fain would he pass it over did not "impartiality forbid
fastidiousness." And yet his mention is less a narration than a
reference, having to do hardly at all with details. Nor are these
readily to be found in the libraries. Like some other events in every
age befalling states everywhere, including America, the Great Mutiny was
of such character that national pride along with views of policy would
fain shade it off into the historical background. Such events can not be
ignored, but there is a considerate way of historically treating them.
If a well-constituted individual refrains from blazoning aught amiss or
calamitous in his family, a nation in the like circumstance may without
reproach be equally discreet.

Though after parleyings between Government and the ringleaders, and
concessions by the former as to some glaring abuses, the first
uprising--that at Spithead--with difficulty was put down, or matters for
the time pacified; yet at the Nore the unforeseen renewal of
insurrection on a yet larger scale, and emphasized in the conferences
that ensued by demands deemed by the authorities not only inadmissible
but aggressively insolent, indicated--if the Red Flag did not
sufficiently do so--what was the spirit animating the men. Final
suppression, however, there was; but only made possible perhaps by the
unswerving loyalty of the marine corps and voluntary resumption of
loyalty among influential sections of the crews.

To some extent the Nore Mutiny may be regarded as analogous to the
distempering irruption of contagious fever in a frame constitutionally
sound, and which anon throws it off.

At all events, of these thousands of mutineers were some of the tars who
not so very long afterwards--whether wholly prompted thereto by
patriotism, or pugnacious instinct, or by both,--helped to win a coronet
for Nelson at the Nile, and the naval crown of crowns for him at
Trafalgar. To the mutineers those battles, and especially Trafalgar,
were a plenary absolution and a grand one: For all that goes to make up
scenic naval display, heroic magnificence in arms, those battles, especially
Trafalgar, stand unmatched in human annals.

Chapter 4

In this matter of writing, resolve as one may to keep to the main road,
some by-paths have an enticement not readily to be withstood. I am going
to err into such a by-path. If the reader will keep me company I shall
be glad. At the least we can promise ourselves that pleasure which is
wickedly said to be in sinning, for a literary sin the divergence will

Very likely it is no new remark that the inventions of our time have at
last brought about a change in sea-warfare in degree corresponding to
the revolution in all warfare effected by the original introduction from
China into Europe of gunpowder. The first European fire-arm, a clumsy
contrivance, was, as is well known, scouted by no few of the knights as
a base implement, good enough peradventure for weavers too craven to
stand up crossing steel with steel in frank fight. But as ashore,
knightly valor, tho' shorn of its blazonry, did not cease with the
knights, neither on the seas, though nowadays in encounters there a
certain kind of displayed gallantry be fallen out of date as hardly
applicable under changed circumstances, did the nobler qualities of such
naval magnates as Don John of Austria, Doria, Van Tromp, Jean Bart, the
long line of British Admirals and the American Decaturs of 1812 become
obsolete with their wooden walls.

Nevertheless, to anybody who can hold the Present at its worth without
being inappreciative of the Past, it may be forgiven, if to such an one
the solitary old hulk at Portsmouth, Nelson's Victory, seems to float
there, not alone as the decaying monument of a fame incorruptible, but
also as a poetic reproach, softened by its picturesqueness, to the
Monitors and yet mightier hulls of the European ironclads. And this not
altogether because such craft are unsightly, unavoidably lacking the
symmetry and grand lines of the old battle-ships, but equally for other

There are some, perhaps, who while not altogether inaccessible to that
poetic reproach just alluded to, may yet on behalf of the new order, be
disposed to parry it; and this to the extent of iconoclasm, if need be.
For example, prompted by the sight of the star inserted in the Victory's
quarter-deck designating the spot where the Great Sailor fell, these
martial utilitarians may suggest considerations implying that Nelson's
ornate publication of his person in battle was not only unnecessary, but
not military, nay, savored of foolhardiness and vanity. They may add,
too, that at Trafalgar it was in effect nothing less than a challenge to
death; and death came; and that but for his bravado the victorious
Admiral might possibly have survived the battle; and so, instead of
having his sagacious dying injunctions overruled by his immediate
successor in command, he himself, when the contest was decided, might
have brought his shattered fleet to anchor, a proceeding which might
have averted the deplorable loss of life by shipwreck in the elemental
tempest that followed the martial one.

Well, should we set aside the more disputable point whether for various
reasons it was possible to anchor the fleet, then plausibly enough the
Benthamites of war may urge the above. But the might-have-been is but
boggy ground to build on. And, certainly, in foresight as to the larger
issue of an encounter, and anxious preparations for it--buoying the
deadly way and mapping it out, as at Copenhagen--few commanders have
been so painstakingly circumspect as this same reckless declarer of his
person in fight.

Personal prudence even when dictated by quite other than selfish
considerations surely is no special virtue in a military man; while an
excessive love of glory, impassioning a less burning impulse, the honest
sense of duty, is the first. If the name Wellington is not so much of a
trumpet to the blood as the simpler name Nelson, the reason for this may
perhaps be inferred from the above. Alfred in his funeral ode on the
victor of Waterloo ventures not to call him the greatest soldier of all
time, tho' in the same ode he invokes Nelson as "the greatest sailor
since our world began."

At Trafalgar, Nelson, on the brink of opening the fight, sat down and
wrote his last brief will and testament. If under the presentiment of
the most magnificent of all victories to be crowned by his own glorious
death, a sort of priestly motive led him to dress his person in the
jewelled vouchers of his own shining deeds; if thus to have adorned
himself for the altar and the sacrifice were indeed vainglory, then
affectation and fustian is each more heroic line in the great epics and
dramas, since in such lines the poet but embodies in verse those
exaltations of sentiment that a nature like Nelson, the opportunity
being given, vitalizes into acts.

Chapter 5

Yes, the outbreak at the Nore was put down. But not every grievance was
redressed. If the contractors, for example, were no longer permitted to
ply some practices peculiar to their tribe everywhere, such as providing
shoddy cloth, rations not sound, or false in the measure, not the less
impressment, for one thing, went on. By custom sanctioned for centuries,
and judicially maintained by a Lord Chancellor as late as Mansfield,
that mode of manning the fleet, a mode now fallen into a sort of
abeyance but never formally renounced, it was not practicable to give up
in those years. Its abrogation would have crippled the indispensable
fleet, one wholly under canvas, no steam-power, its innumerable sails
and thousands of cannon, everything in short, worked by muscle alone; a
fleet the more insatiate in demand for men, because then multiplying its
ships of all grades against contingencies present and to come of the
convulsed Continent.

Discontent foreran the Two Mutinies, and more or less it lurkingly
survived them. Hence it was not unreasonable to apprehend some return of
trouble, sporadic or general. One instance of such apprehensions: In the
same year with this story, Nelson, then Vice-Admiral Sir Horatio, being
with the fleet off the Spanish coast, was directed by the Admiral in
command to shift his pennant from the Captain to the Theseus; and for
this reason: that the latter ship having newly arrived on the station
from home where it had taken part in the Great Mutiny, danger was
apprehended from the temper of the men; and it was thought that an
officer like Nelson was the one, not indeed to terrorize the crew into
base subjection, but to win them, by force of his mere presence, back to
an allegiance if not as enthusiastic as his own, yet as true.

So it was that for a time on more than one quarter-deck anxiety did
exist. At sea precautionary vigilance was strained against relapse. At
short notice an engagement might come on. When it did, the lieutenants
assigned to batteries felt it incumbent on them, in some instances, to
stand with drawn swords behind the men working the guns.

Chapter 6

But on board the seventy-four in which Billy now swung his hammock, very
little in the manner of the men and nothing obvious in the demeanour of
the officers would have suggested to an ordinary observer that the Great
Mutiny was a recent event. In their general bearing and conduct the
commissioned officers of a warship naturally take their tone from the
Commander, that is if he have that ascendancy of character that ought to
be his.

Captain the Honorable Edward Fairfax Vere, to give his full title, was a
bachelor of forty or thereabouts, a sailor of distinction even in a time
prolific of renowned seamen. Though allied to the higher nobility, his
advancement had not been altogether owing to influences connected with
that circumstance. He had seen much service, been in various
engagements, always acquitting himself as an officer mindful of the
welfare of his men, but never tolerating an infraction of discipline;
thoroughly versed in the science of his profession, and intrepid to the
verge of temerity, though never injudiciously so. For his gallantry in
the West Indian waters as Flag-Lieutenant under Rodney in that Admiral's
crowning victory over De Grasse, he was made a Post-Captain.

Ashore in the garb of a civilian, scarce anyone would have taken him for
a sailor, more especially that he never garnished unprofessional talk
with nautical terms, and grave in his bearing, evinced little
appreciation of mere humor. It was not out of keeping with these traits
that on a passage when nothing demanded his paramount action, he was the
most undemonstrative of men. Any landsman observing this gentleman, not
conspicuous by his stature and wearing no pronounced insignia, emerging
from his cabin to the open deck, and noting the silent deference of the
officers retiring to leeward, might have taken him for the King's guest,
a civilian aboard the King's-ship, some highly honorable discreet envoy
on his way to an important post. But in fact this unobtrusiveness of
demeanour may have proceeded from a certain unaffected modesty of
manhood sometimes accompanying a resolute nature, a modesty evinced at
all times not calling for pronounced action, and which shown in any rank
of life suggests a virtue aristocratic in kind. As with some others
engaged in various departments of the world's more heroic activities,
Captain Vere, though practical enough upon occasion, would at times
betray a certain 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 presentation to him then of some minor
matter interrupting the current of his thoughts he would show more or
less irascibility; but instantly he would control it.

In the navy he was popularly known by the appellation--Starry Vere. How
such a designation happened to fall upon one who, whatever his sterling
qualities, was without any brilliant ones was in this wise: A favorite
kinsman, Lord Denton, a free-hearted fellow, had been the first to meet
and congratulate him upon his return to England from his West Indian
cruise; and but the day previous turning over a copy of Andrew Marvell's
poems, had lighted, not for the first time however, upon the lines
entitled Appleton House, the name of one of the seats of their common
ancestor, a hero in the German wars of the seventeenth century, in which
poem occur the lines,

"This 'tis to have been from the first
In a domestic heaven nursed,
Under the discipline severe
Of Fairfax and the starry Vere."

And so, upon embracing his cousin fresh from Rodney's great victory
wherein he had played so gallant a part, brimming over with just family
pride in the sailor of their house, he exuberantly exclaimed, "Give ye
joy, Ed; give ye joy, my starry Vere!" This got currency, and the novel
prefix serving in familiar parlance readily to distinguish the
Indomitable's Captain from another Vere his senior, a distant relative,
an officer of like rank in the navy, it remained permanently attached to
the surname.

Chapter 7

In view of the part that the Commander of the Indomitable plays in
scenes shortly to follow, it may be well to fill out that sketch of his
outlined in the previous chapter.

Aside from his qualities as a sea-officer, Captain Vere was an
exceptional character. Unlike no few of England's renowned sailors, long
and arduous service with signal devotion to it, had not resulted in
absorbing and salting the entire man. He had a marked leaning toward
everything intellectual. He loved books, never going to sea without a
newly replenished library, compact but of the best. 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
nothing of that literary taste which less heeds the thing conveyed than
the vehicle, his bias was toward those books to which every serious mind
of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world
naturally inclines; books treating of actual men and events no matter of
what era--history, biography and unconventional writers, who, free from
cant and convention, like Montaigne, honestly and in the spirit of
common sense philosophize upon realities. In this line of reading he
found confirmation of his own more reasoned thoughts--confirmation which
he had vainly sought in social converse, so that as touching most
fundamental topics, there had got to be established in him some positive
convictions, which he forefelt would abide in him essentially unmodified
so long as his intelligent part remained unimpaired. In view of the
troubled period in which his lot was cast this was well for him. His
settled convictions were as a dyke against those invading waters of
novel opinion, social, political and otherwise, which carried away as in
a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to
his own. While other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he
belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories
were inimical to the privileged classes, not alone Captain Vere
disinterestedly opposed them because they seemed to him incapable of
embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the
world and the true welfare of mankind.

With minds less stored than his and less earnest, some officers of his
rank, with whom at times he would necessarily consort, found him lacking
in the companionable quality, a dry and bookish gentleman, as they
deemed. Upon any chance withdrawal from their company one would be apt
to say to another, something like this: "Vere is a noble fellow, Starry
Vere. Spite the gazettes, Sir Horatio" (meaning him with the Lord title)
"is at bottom scarce a better seaman or fighter. But between you and me
now, don't you think there is a queer streak of the pedantic running
thro' him? Yes, like the King's yarn in a coil of navy-rope?"

Some apparent ground there was for this sort of confidential criticism;
since not only did the Captain's discourse never fall into the jocosely
familiar, but in illustrating of any point touching the stirring
personages and events of the time he would be as apt to cite some
historic character or incident of antiquity as that he would cite from
the moderns. He seemed unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff
company such remote allusions, however pertinent they might really be,
were altogether alien to men whose reading was mainly confined to the
journals. But considerateness in such matters is not easy to natures
constituted like Captain Vere's. Their honesty prescribes to them
directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in
its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier.

Chapter 8

The lieutenants and other commissioned gentlemen forming Captain Vere's
staff it is not necessary here to particularize, nor needs it to make
any mention of any of the warrant-officers. But among the petty-officers
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 Master-at-arms. But that sea-title may to landsmen seem
somewhat equivocal. Originally, doubtless, that petty-officer's function
was the instruction of the men in the use of arms, sword or cutlas. But
very long ago, owing to the advance in gunnery making hand-to-hand
encounters less frequent and giving to nitre and sulphur the preeminence
over steel, that function ceased; the Master-at-arms of a great war-ship
becoming a sort of Chief of Police, charged among other matters with the
duty of preserving order on the populous lower gun decks.

Claggart was a man about five and thirty, somewhat spare and tall, yet
of no ill figure upon the whole. His hand was too small and shapely to
have been accustomed to hard toil. The face was a notable one; the
features all except the chin cleanly cut as those on a Greek medallion;
yet the chin, beardless as Tecumseh's, had something of strange
protuberant heaviness in its make that recalled the prints of the Rev.
Dr. Titus Oates, the historic deponent with the clerical drawl in the
time of Charles II and the fraud of the alleged Popish Plot. It served
Claggart in his office that his eye could cast a tutoring glance. His
brow was of the sort phrenologically associated with more than average
intellect; silken jet curls partly clustering over it, making a foil to
the pallor below, a pallor tinged with a faint shade of amber akin to
the hue of time-tinted marbles of old. This complexion, singularly
contrasting with the red or deeply bronzed visages of the sailors, and
in part the result of his official seclusion from the sunlight, tho' it
was not exactly displeasing, nevertheless seemed to hint of something
defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood. But his general
aspect and manner were so suggestive of an education and career
incongruous with his naval function that when not actively engaged in it
he looked a man of high quality, social and moral, who for reasons of
his own was keeping incog. Nothing was known of his former life. It
might be that he was an Englishman; and yet there lurked a bit of accent
in his speech suggesting that possibly he was not such by birth, but
through naturalization in early childhood. Among certain grizzled
sea--gossips of the gun decks and forecastle went a rumor perdue that
the Master-at-arms was a chevalier who had volunteered into the King's
Navy by way of compounding for some mysterious swindle whereof he had
been arraigned at the King's Bench. The fact that nobody could
substantiate this report was, of course, nothing against its secret
currency. Such a rumor once started on the gun decks in reference to
almost anyone below the rank of a commissioned officer would, during the
period assigned to this narrative, have seemed not altogether wanting in
credibility to the tarry old wiseacres of a man-of-war crew. And indeed
a man of Claggart's accomplishments, without prior nautical experience,
entering the navy at mature life, as he did, and necessarily allotted at
the start to the lowest grade in it; a man, too, who never made allusion
to his previous life ashore; these were circumstances which in the
dearth of exact knowledge as to his true antecedents opened to the
invidious a vague field for unfavorable surmise.

But the sailors' dog-watch gossip concerning him derived a vague
plausibility from the fact that now for some period the British Navy
could so little afford to be squeamish in the matter of keeping up the
muster--rolls, that not only were press-gangs notoriously abroad both
afloat and ashore, but there was little or no secret about another
matter, namely that the London police were at liberty to capture any
able-bodied suspect, any questionable fellow at large and summarily ship
him to dockyard or fleet. Furthermore, even among voluntary enlistments
there were instances where the motive thereto partook neither of
patriotic impulse nor yet of a random desire to experience a bit of
sea-life and martial adventure. Insolvent debtors of minor grade,
together with the promiscuous lame ducks of morality found in the Navy a
convenient and secure refuge. Secure, because once enlisted aboard a
King's-ship, they were as much in sanctuary, as the transgressor of the
Middle Ages harboring himself under the shadow of the altar. Such
sanctioned irregularities, which for obvious reasons the Government
would hardly think to parade at the time, and which consequently, and as
affecting the least influential class of mankind, have all but dropped
into oblivion, lend color to something for the truth whereof I do not
vouch, and hence have some scruple in stating; something I remember
having seen in print, though the book I can not recall; but the same
thing was personally communicated to me now more than forty years ago by
an old pensioner in a cocked hat with whom I had a most interesting talk
on the terrace at Greenwich, a Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man. It was
to this effect: In the case of a war-ship short of hands whose speedy
sailing was imperative, the deficient quota in lack of any other way of
making it good, would be eked out by draughts culled direct from the
jails. For reasons previously suggested it would not perhaps be easy at
the present day directly to prove or disprove the allegation. But
allowed as a verity, how significant would it be of England's straits at
the time, confronted by those wars which like a flight of harpies rose
shrieking from the din and dust of the fallen Bastille. That era appears
measurably clear to us who look back at it, and but read of it. But to
the grandfathers of us graybeards, the more thoughtful of them, the
genius of it presented an aspect like that of Camons' Spirit of the
Cape, an eclipsing menace mysterious and prodigious. Not America was
exempt from apprehension. At the height of Napoleon's unexampled
conquests, there were Americans who had fought at Bunker Hill who looked
forward to the possibility that the Atlantic might prove no barrier
against the ultimate schemes of this French upstart from the
revolutionary chaos who seemed in act of fulfilling judgement prefigured
in the Apocalypse.

But the less credence was to be given to the gun-deck talk touching
Claggart, seeing that no man holding his office in a man-of-war can ever
hope to be popular with the crew. Besides, in derogatory comments upon
anyone against whom they have a grudge, or for any reason or no reason
mislike, sailors are much like landsmen; they are apt to exaggerate or
romance it.

About as much was really known to the Indomitable's tars of the
Master-at-arms' career before entering the service as an astronomer
knows about a comet's travels prior to its first observable appearance
in the sky. The verdict of the sea quid-nuncs has been cited only by way
of showing what sort of moral impression the man made upon rude
uncultivated natures whose conceptions of human wickedness were
necessarily of the narrowest, limited to ideas of vulgar rascality,--a
thief among the swinging hammocks during a night-watch, or the man
brokers and land-sharks of the sea-ports.

It was no gossip, however, but fact, that though, as before hinted,
Claggart upon his entrance into the navy was, as a novice, assigned to
the least honourable section of a man-of-war's crew, embracing the
drudgery, he did not long remain there. The superior capacity he
immediately evinced, his constitutional sobriety, ingratiating deference
to superiors, together with a peculiar ferreting genius manifested on a
singular occasion; all this capped by a certain austere patriotism
abruptly advanced him to the position of Master-at-arms.

Of this maritime Chief of Police the ship's-corporals, so called, were
the immediate subordinates, and compliant ones; and this, as is to be
noted in some business departments ashore, almost to a degree
inconsistent with entire moral volition. His place put various
converging wires of underground influence under the Chief's control,
capable when astutely worked thro' his understrappers, of operating to
the mysterious discomfort, if nothing worse, of any of the

Chapter 9

Life in the fore-top well agreed with Billy Budd. There, when not
actually engaged on the yards yet higher aloft, the topmen, who as such
had been picked out for youth and activity, constituted an aerial club
lounging at ease against the smaller stun'sails rolled up into cushions,
spinning yarns like the lazy gods, and frequently amused with what was
going on in the busy world of the decks below. No wonder then that a
young fellow of Billy's disposition was well content in such society.
Giving no cause of offence to anybody, he was always alert at a call. So
in the merchant service it had been with him. But now such a
punctiliousness in duty was shown that his topmates would sometimes
good-naturedly laugh at him for it. This heightened alacrity had its
cause, namely, the impression made upon him by the first formal
gangway-punishment he had ever witnessed, which befell the day following
his impressment. It had been incurred by a little fellow, young, a
novice, an afterguardsman absent from his assigned post when the ship
was being put about; a dereliction resulting in a rather serious hitch
to that manoeuvre, one demanding instantaneous promptitude in letting go
and making fast. When Billy saw the culprit's naked back under the
scourge gridironed with red welts, and worse; when he marked the dire
expression on the liberated man's face as with his woolen shirt flung
over him by the executioner he rushed forward from the spot to bury
himself in the crowd, Billy was horrified. He resolved that never
through remissness would he make himself liable to such a visitation or
do or omit aught that might merit even verbal reproof. What then was his
surprise and concern when ultimately he found himself getting into petty
trouble occasionally about such matters as the stowage of his bag or
something amiss in his hammock, matters under the police oversight of
the ship's-corporals of the lower decks, and which brought down on him 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 were either lightly incredulous or found
something comical in his unconcealed anxiety. "Is it your bag, Billy?"
said one. "Well, sew yourself up in it, bully boy, and then you'll be
sure to know if anybody meddles with it."

Now there was a veteran aboard who because his years began to disqualify
him for more active work had been recently assigned duty as mainmastman
in his watch, looking to the gear belayed at the rail roundabout that
great spar near the deck. At off-times the Foretopman had picked up some
acquaintance with him, and now in his trouble it occurred to him that he
might be the sort of person to go to for wise counsel. He was an old
Dansker long anglicized in the service, of few words, many wrinkles and
some honorable scars. His wizened face, time-tinted and weather-stained
to the complexion of an antique parchment, was here and there peppered
blue by the chance explosion of a gun-cartridge in action.

He was an Agamemnon man; some two years prior to the time of this story
having served under Nelson, when but Sir Horatio, in that ship immortal
in naval memory, and which, dismantled and in part broken up to her bare
ribs, is seen a grand skeleton in Haydon's etching. As one of a
boarding-party from the Agamemnon he had received a cut slantwise along
one temple and cheek, leaving a long scar like a streak of dawn's light
falling athwart the dark visage. It was on account of that scar and the
affair in which it was known that he had received it, as well as from
his blue-peppered complexion, that the Dansker went among the
Indomitable's crew by the name of "Board-her-in-the-smoke."

Now the first time that his small weazel-eyes happened to light on Billy
Budd, a certain grim internal merriment set all his ancient wrinkles
into antic play. Was it that his eccentric unsentimental old sapience,
primitive in its kind, saw or thought it saw something which, in
contrast with the war-ship's environment, looked oddly incongruous in
the Handsome Sailor? But after slyly studying him at intervals, the old
Merlin's equivocal merriment was modified; for now when the twain would
meet, it would start in his face a quizzing sort of look, but it would
be but momentary and sometimes replaced by an expression of speculative
query as to what might eventually befall a nature like that, dropped
into a world not without some man--traps and against whose subtleties
simple courage, lacking experience and address and without any touch of
defensive ugliness, is of little avail; and where such innocence as man
is capable of does yet in a moral emergency not always sharpen the
faculties or enlighten the will.

However it was, the Dansker in his ascetic way rather took to Billy. Nor
was this only because of a certain philosophic interest in such a
character. There was another cause. While the old man's eccentricities,
sometimes bordering on the ursine, repelled the juniors, Billy,
undeterred thereby, revering him as a salt hero, would make advances,
never passing the old Agamemnon man without a salutation marked by that
respect which is seldom lost on the aged however crabbed at times or
whatever their station in life.

There was a vein of dry humor, or what not, in the mast-man; and,
whether in freak of patriarchal irony touching Billy's youth and
athletic frame, or for some other and more recondite reason, from the
first in addressing him he always substituted Baby for Billy. The
Dansker in fact being the originator of the name by which the Foretopman
eventually became known aboard ship.

Well then, in his mysterious little difficulty, going in quest of the
wrinkled one, Billy found him off duty in a dog-watch ruminating by
himself, seated on a shot-box of the upper gun deck, now and then
surveying with a somewhat cynical regard certain of the more swaggering
promenaders there. Billy recounted his trouble, again wondering how it
all happened. The salt seer attentively listened, accompanying the
Foretopman's recital with queer twitchings of his wrinkles and
problematical little sparkles of his small ferret eyes. Making an end of
his story, the Foretopman asked, "And now, Dansker, do tell me what you
think of it."

The old man, shoving up the front of his tarpaulin and deliberately
rubbing the long slant scar at the point where it entered the thin hair,
laconically said, "Baby Budd, Jimmy Legs" (meaning the Master--at-arms)
"is down on you."

"Jimmy Legs!" ejaculated Billy, his welkin eyes expanding; "what for?
Why he calls me the sweet and pleasant fellow, 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 him but there comes a
pleasant word."

"And that's because he's down upon you, Baby Budd."

Such reiteration along with the manner of it, incomprehensible to a
novice, disturbed Billy almost as much as the mystery for which he had
sought explanation. Something less unpleasingly oracular he tried to
extract; but the old sea-Chiron, thinking perhaps that for the nonce he
had sufficiently instructed his young Achilles, pursed his lips,
gathered all his wrinkles together and would commit himself to nothing

Years, and those experiences which befall certain shrewder men
subordinated life-long to the will of superiors, all this had developed
in the Dansker the pithy guarded cynicism that was his leading

Chapter 10

The next day an incident served to confirm Billy Budd in his incredulity
as to the Dansker's strange summing--up of the case submitted. The ship
at noon, going large before the wind, was rolling on her course, and he,
below at dinner and engaged in some sportful talk with the members of
his mess, chanced in a sudden lurch to spill the entire contents of his
soup-pan upon the new scrubbed deck. Claggart, the Master-at-arms,
official rattan in hand, happened to be passing along the battery in a
bay of which the mess was lodged, and the greasy liquid streamed just
across his path. Stepping over it, he was proceeding on his way without
comment, since the matter was nothing to take notice of under the
circumstances, when he happened to observe who it was that had done the
spilling. His countenance changed. Pausing, he was about to ejaculate
something hasty at the sailor, but checked himself, and pointing down to
the streaming soup, playfully tapped him from behind with his rattan,
saying in a low musical voice peculiar to him at times, "Handsomely
done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!" And with that
passed on. Not noted by Billy, as not coming within his view, was the
involuntary smile, or rather grimace, that accompanied Claggart's
equivocal words. Aridly it drew down the thin corners of his shapely
mouth. But everybody taking his remark as meant for humourous, and at
which therefore as coming from a superior they were bound to laugh "with
counterfeited glee," acted accordingly; and Billy tickled, it may be, by
the allusion to his being the handsome sailor, merrily joined in; then
addressing his messmates exclaimed, "There now, who says that Jimmy Legs
is down on me!"

"And who said he was, Beauty?" demanded one Donald with some surprise.
Whereat the Foretopman looked a little foolish, recalling that it was
only one person, Board-her-in-the-smoke, who had suggested what to him
was the smoky idea that this Master-at-arms was in any peculiar way
hostile to him. Meantime that functionary, resuming his path, must have
momentarily worn some expression less guarded than that of the bitter
smile, and usurping the face from the heart, some distorting expression
perhaps; for a drummer-boy heedlessly frolicking along from the opposite
direction and chancing to come into light collision with his person was
strangely disconcerted by his aspect. Nor was the impression lessened
when the official, impulsively giving him a sharp cut with the rattan,
vehemently exclaimed, "Look where you go!"

Chapter 11

What was the matter with the Master-at-arms? And, be the matter what it
might, how could it have direct relation to Billy Budd with whom, prior
to the affair of the spilled soup, he had never come into any special
contact, official or otherwise? What indeed could the trouble have to do
with one so little inclined to give offence as the merchant-ship's
peacemaker, even him who in Claggart's own phrase was "the sweet and
pleasant young fellow"? Yes, why should Jimmy Legs, to borrow the
Dansker's expression, be down on the Handsome Sailor? But, at heart and
not for nothing, as the late chance encounter may indicate to the
discerning, down on him, secretly down on him, he assuredly was.

Now to invent something touching the more private career of Claggart,
something involving Billy Budd, of which something the latter should be
wholly ignorant, some romantic incident implying that Claggart's
knowledge of the young blue-jacket began at some period anterior to
catching sight of him on board the seventy-four-all this, not so
difficult to do, might avail in a way more or less interesting to
account for whatever of enigma may appear to lurk in the case. But in
fact there was nothing of the sort. And yet the cause, necessarily to be
assumed as the sole one assignable, is in its very realism as much
charged with that prime element of Radcliffian romance, the mysterious,
as any that the ingenuity of the author of the Mysteries of Udolpho
could devise. For what can more partake of the mysterious than an
antipathy spontaneous and profound, such as is evoked in certain
exceptional mortals by the mere aspect of some other mortal, however
harmless he may be, if not called forth by this very harmlessness

Now there can exist no irritating juxtaposition of dissimilar
personalities comparable to that which is possible aboard a great
war-ship fully manned and at sea. There, every day among all ranks
almost every man comes into more or less of contact with almost every
other man. Wholly there to avoid even the sight of an aggravating object
one must needs give it Jonah's toss or jump overboard himself. Imagine
how all this might eventually operate on some peculiar human creature
the direct reverse of a saint?

But for the adequate comprehending of Claggart by a normal nature, these
hints are insufficient. To pass from a normal nature to him one must
cross "the deadly space between." And this is best done by indirection.

Long ago an honest scholar my senior, said to me in reference to one who
like himself is now no more, a man so unimpeachably respectable that
against him nothing was ever openly said though among the few something
was whispered, "Yes, X----is a nut not be cracked by the tap of a lady's
fan. You are aware that I am the adherent of no organized religion much
less of any philosophy built into a system. Well, for all that, I think
that to try and get into X---, enter his labyrinth and get out again,
without a clue derived from some source other than what is known as
"knowledge of the world"--that were hardly possible, at least for me."

"Why," said I, "X---, however singular a study to some, is yet human,
and knowledge of the world assuredly implies the knowledge of human
nature, and in most of its varieties."

"Yes, but a superficial knowledge of it, serving ordinary purposes. But
for anything deeper, I am not certain whether to know the world and to
know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which while
they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or
nothing of the other. Nay, in an average man of the world, his constant
rubbing with it blunts that fine spiritual insight indispensable to the
understanding of the essential in certain exceptional characters,
whether evil ones or good. In a matter of some importance I have seen a
girl wind an old lawyer about her little finger. Nor was it the dotage
of senile love. Nothing of the sort. But he knew law better than he knew
the girl's heart. Coke and Blackstone hardly shed so much light into
obscure spiritual places as the Hebrew prophets. And who were they?
Mostly recluses."

At the time my inexperience was such that I did not quite see the drift
of all this. It may be that I see it now. And, indeed, if that lexicon
which is based on Holy Writ were any longer popular, one might with less
difficulty define and denominate certain phenomenal men. As it is, one
must turn to some authority not liable to the charge of being tinctured
with the Biblical element.

In a list of definitions included in the authentic translation of Plato,
a list attributed to him, occurs this: "Natural Depravity: a depravity
according to nature." A definition which tho' savoring of Calvinism, by
no means involves Calvin's dogmas as to total mankind. Evidently its
intent makes it applicable but to individuals. Not many are the examples
of this depravity which the gallows and jail supply. At any rate for
notable instances, since these have no vulgar alloy of the brute in
them, but invariably are dominated by intellectuality, one must go
elsewhere. Civilization, especially if of the austerer sort, is
auspicious to it. It folds itself in the mantle of respectability. It
has its certain negative virtues serving as silent auxiliaries. It never
allows wine to get within its guard. It is not going too far to say that
it is without vices or small sins. There is a phenomenal pride in it
that excludes them from anything mercenary or avaricious. In short the
depravity here meant partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual. It is
serious, but free from acerbity. Though no flatterer of mankind it never
speaks ill of it.

But the thing which in eminent instances signalizes so exceptional a
nature is this: though the man's even temper and discreet bearing would
seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the
less in his heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that
law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ
it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to
say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness 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 dangerous sort, 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 that when moreover, most active, it
is to the average mind not distinguishable from sanity, and for the
reason above suggested that whatever its aims may be--and the aim is
never declared--the method and the outward proceeding are always
perfectly rational.

Now something such an one was Claggart, in whom was the mania of an evil
nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or
licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short "a depravity
according to nature."

By the way, can it be the phenomenon, disowned or at least concealed,
that in some criminal cases puzzles the courts? For this cause have our
juries at times not only to endure the prolonged contentions of lawyers
with their fees, but also the yet more perplexing strife of the medical
experts with theirs? But why leave it to them? Why not subpoena as well
the clerical proficients? Their vocation bringing them into peculiar
contact with so many human beings, and sometimes in their least guarded
hour, in interviews very much more confidential than those of physician
and patient; this would seem to qualify them to know something about
those intricacies involved in the question of moral responsibility;
whether in a given case, say, the crime proceeded from mania in the
brain or rabies of the heart. As to any differences among themselves
these clerical proficients might develop on the stand, these could
hardly be greater than the direct contradictions exchanged between the
remunerated medical experts.

Dark sayings are these, some will say. But why? Is it because they
somewhat savor of Holy Writ in its phrase "mysteries of iniquity"? If
they do, such savor was far from being intended, for little will it
commend these pages to many a reader of to-day.

The point of the present story turning on the hidden nature of the
Master-at-arms has necessitated this chapter. With an added hint or two
in connection with the incident at the mess, the resumed narrative must
be left to vindicate, as it may, its own credibility.

Chapter 12

That 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 the
form of Billy Budd was heroic; and if his face was without the
intellectual look of the pallid Claggart's, not the less was it lit,
like his, from within, though from a different source. The bonfire in
his heart made luminous the rose-tan in his cheek.

In view of the marked contrast between the persons of the twain, it is
more than probable that when the Master-at-arms in the scene last given
applied to the sailor the proverb Handsome is as handsome does, he there
let escape an ironic inkling, not caught by the young sailors who heard
it, as to what it was that had first moved him against Billy, namely,
his significant personal beauty.

Now envy and antipathy, passions irreconcilable in reason, nevertheless
in fact may spring conjoined like Chang and Eng in one birth. Is Envy
then such a monster? Well, though many an arraigned mortal has in hopes
of mitigated penalty pleaded guilty to horrible actions, did ever
anybody seriously confess to envy? Something there is in it universally
felt to be more shameful than even felonious crime. And not only does
everybody disown it, but the better sort are inclined to incredulity
when it is in earnest imputed to an intelligent man. But since its
lodgement is in the heart not the brain, no degree of intellect supplies
a guarantee against it. But Claggart's was no vulgar form of the
passion. Nor, as directed toward Billy Budd, did it partake of that
streak of apprehensive jealousy that marred Saul's visage perturbedly
brooding on the comely young David. Claggart's envy struck deeper. If
askance he eyed the good looks, cheery health and frank enjoyment of
young life in Billy Budd, it was because these went along with a nature
that, as Claggart magnetically felt, had in its simplicity never willed
malice or experienced the reactionary bite of that serpent. To him, the
spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from
windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed
cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him
preeminently the Handsome Sailor. One person excepted, the
Master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually
capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in
Billy Budd. And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming
various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic
disdain--disdain of innocence. To be nothing more than innocent! Yet in
an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy
temper of it, and fain would have 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 surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably
are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the
scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible, act out to the end
the part allotted it.

Chapter 13

Passion, and passion in its profoundest, is not a thing demanding a
palatial stage whereon to play its part. Down among the groundlings,
among the beggars and rakers of the garbage, profound passion is
enacted. And the circumstances that provoke it, however trivial or mean,
are no measure of its power. In the present instance the stage is a
scrubbed gun deck, and one of the external provocations a
man--of-war's-man's spilled soup.

Now when the Master-at-arms noticed whence came that greasy fluid
streaming before his feet, he must have taken it--to some extent
wilfully, perhaps--not for the mere accident it assuredly was, but for
the sly escape of a spontaneous feeling on Billy's part more or less
answering to the antipathy on his own. In effect a foolish demonstration
he must have thought, and very harmless, like the futile kick of a
heifer, which yet were the heifer a shod stallion, would not be so
harmless. Even so was it that into the gall of Claggart's envy he
infused the vitriol of his contempt. But the incident confirmed to him
certain tell-tale reports purveyed to his ear by Squeak, one of his
more cunning Corporals, a grizzled little man, so nicknamed by the
sailors on account of his squeaky voice, and sharp visage ferreting
about the dark corners of the lower decks after interlopers, satirically
suggesting to them the idea of a rat in a cellar.

From his Chief's employing him as an implicit tool in laying little
traps for the worriment of the Foretopman---for it was from the
Master-at-arms that the petty persecutions heretofore adverted to had
proceeded--the Corporal having naturally enough concluded that his
master could have no love for the sailor, made it his business, faithful
understrapper that he was, to foment the ill blood by perverting to his
Chief certain innocent frolics of the goodnatured Foretopman, besides
inventing for his mouth sundry contumelious epithets he claimed to have
overheard him let fall. The Master-at-arms never suspected the veracity
of these reports, more especially as to the epithets, for he well knew
how secretly unpopular may become a master-at-arms, at least a
master-at-arms of those days zealous in his function, and how the
blue--jackets shoot at him in private their raillery and wit; the
nickname by which he goes among them (Jimmy Legs) implying under the
form of merriment their cherished disrespect and dislike. But in view of
the greediness of hate for patrolmen, it hardly needed a purveyor to
feed Claggart's passion.

An uncommon prudence is habitual with the subtler depravity, for it has
everything to hide. And in case of an injury but suspected, its
secretiveness voluntarily cuts it off from enlightenment or disillusion;
and, not unreluctantly, action is taken upon surmise as upon certainty.
And the retaliation is apt to be in monstrous disproportion to the
supposed offence; for when in anybody was revenge in its exactions aught
else but an inordinate usurer? But how with Claggart's conscience? For
though consciences are unlike as foreheads, every intelligence, not
excluding the Scriptural devils who "believe and tremble," has one. But
Claggart's conscience being but the lawyer to his will, made ogres of
trifles, probably arguing that the motive imputed to Billy in spilling
the soup just when he did, together with the epithets alleged, these, if
nothing more, made a strong case against him; nay, justified animosity
into a sort of retributive righteousness. The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes
prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts. And they can
really form no conception of an unreciprocated malice. Probably, the
Master-at-arms' clandestine persecution of Billy was started to try the
temper of the man; but it had not developed any quality in him that
enmity could make official use of or even pervert into plausible
self-justification; so that the occurrence at the mess, petty if it
were, was a welcome one to that peculiar conscience assigned to be the
private mentor of Claggart. And, for the rest, not improbably it put him
upon new experiments.

Chapter 14

Not many days after the last incident narrated, something befell Billy
Budd that more gravelled him 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 dozing on the uppermost deck whither he
had ascended from his hot hammock, one of hundreds suspended so closely
wedged together over a lower gun deck that there was little or no swing
to them. He lay as in the shadow of a hill-side, stretched under the lee
of the booms, a piled ridge of spare spars amidships between fore-mast
and mainmast and among which the ship's largest boat, the launch, was
stowed. Alongside of three other slumberers from below, he lay near that
end of the booms which approaches the fore-mast; his station aloft on
duty as a foretopman being just over the deckstation of the
forecastlemen, entitling him according to usage to make himself more or
less at home in that neighbourhood.

Presently he was stirred into semi-consciousness by somebody, who must
have previously sounded the sleep of the others, touching his shoulder,
and then as the Foretopman raised his head, breathing into his ear in a
quick whisper, "Slip into the lee forechains, Billy; there is something
in the wind. Don't speak. Quick, I will meet you there"; and

Now Billy like sundry other essentially good-natured ones had some of
the weaknesses inseparable from essential good-nature; and among these
was a reluctance, almost an incapacity of plumply saying no to an abrupt
proposition not obviously absurd, on the face of it, nor obviously
unfriendly, nor iniquitous. And being of warm blood he had not the
phlegm tacitly to negative any proposition by unresponsive inaction.
Like his sense of fear, his apprehension as to aught outside of the
honest and natural was seldom very quick. Besides, upon the present
occasion, the drowse from his sleep still hung upon him.

However it was, he mechanically rose, and sleepily wondering what could
be in the wind, betook himself to the designated place, a narrow
platform, one of six, outside of the high bulwarks and screened by the
great dead-eyes and multiple columned lanyards of the shrouds and
back-stays; and, in a great war-ship of that time, of dimensions
commensurate with the hull's magnitude; a tarry balcony, in short,
overhanging the sea, and so secluded that one mariner of the
Indomitable, a non-conformist old tar of a serious turn, made it even in
daytime his private 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. Yet from something in the outline and carriage,
Billy took him to be, and correctly, one of the afterguard.

"Hist! Billy," said the man in the same quick cautionary whisper 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 a

"What do you mean?" demanded Billy, here thoroughly shaking off his

"Hist, hist!" the hurried whisper now growing husky, "see here"; and the
man held up two small objects faintly twinkling in the nightlight; "see,
they are yours, Billy, if you'll only--"

But Billy broke in, and in his resentful eagerness to deliver 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 you belong!" For the moment the fellow, as confounded, did not
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!" There was no mistaking this and the
mysterious emissary decamped disappearing in the direction of the
main-mast in the shadow of the booms.

"Hallo, what's the matter?" here came growling from a forecastleman
awakened from his deck-doze by Billy's raised voice. And as the
Foretopman reappeared and was recognized by him; "Ah, Beauty, is it you?
Well, something must have been the matter for you st-st-stuttered."

"Oh," rejoined Billy, now mastering the impediment; "I found an
afterguardsman in our part of the ship here and I bid him be off where
he belongs."

"And is that all you did about it, Foretopman?" gruffly demanded
another, an irascible old fellow of brick-colored visage and hair, and
who was known to his associate forecastlemen as Red Pepper; "Such sneaks
I should like to marry to the gunner's daughter!" by that expression
meaning that he would like to subject them to disciplinary castigation
over a gun.

However, Billy's rendering of the matter satisfactorily accounted to
these inquirers for the brief commotion, since of all the sections of a
ship's company, the forecastlemen, veterans for the most part and
bigoted in their sea-prejudices, are the most jealous in resenting
territorial encroachments, especially on the part of any of the
afterguard, of whom they have but a sorry opinion, chiefly landsmen,
never going aloft except to reef or furl the mainsail and in no wise
competent to handle a marlinspike or turn in a dead-eye, say.

Chapter 15

This incident sorely puzzled Billy Budd. It was an entirely new
experience; the first time in his life that he had ever been personally
approached in underhand intriguing fashion. Prior to this encounter he
had known nothing of the afterguardsman, the two men being stationed
wide apart, one forward and aloft during his 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 to his eyes? Where could
the fellow get guineas? Why even spare buttons are not so plentiful at
sea. The more he turned the matter over, the more he was non-plussed,
and made uneasy and discomforted. In his disgustful recoil from an
overture which tho' he but ill comprehended he instinctively knew must
involve evil of some sort, Billy Budd was like a young horse fresh from
the pasture suddenly inhaling a vile whiff from some chemical factory,
and by repeated snortings tries to get it out of his nostrils and lungs.
This frame of mind barred all desire of holding further parley with the
fellow, even were it but for the purpose of gaining some enlightenment
as to his design in approaching him. And yet he was not without natural
curiosity to see how such a visitor in the dark would look in broad day.

He espied him the following afternoon, in his first dog-watch, below,
one of the smokers on that forward part of the upper gun deck allotted
to the pipe. He recognized him by his general cut and build, more than
by his round freckled face and glassy eyes of pale blue, veiled with
lashes all but white. And yet Billy was a bit uncertain whether indeed
it were he--yonder chap about his own age chatting and laughing in
free-hearted way, leaning against a gun; a genial young fellow enough to
look at, and something of a rattlebrain, to all appearance. Rather
chubby too for a sailor, even an afterguardsman. In short the last man
in the world, one would think, to be overburthened with thoughts,
especially those perilous thoughts that must needs belong to a
conspirator in any serious project, or even to the underling of such a

Altho' Billy was not aware of it, the fellow, with a sidelong watchful
glance had perceived Billy first, and then noting that Billy was looking
at him, thereupon nodded a familiar sort of friendly recognition as to
an old acquaintance, without interrupting the talk he was engaged in
with the group of smokers. A day or two afterwards, chancing in the
evening promenade on a gun deck to pass Billy, he offered a flying word
of good-fellowship, as it were, which by its unexpectedness, and
equivocalness under the circumstances so embarrassed Billy that he knew
not how to respond to it, and let it go unnoticed.

Billy was now left more at a loss than before. The ineffectual
speculation into which he was led was so disturbingly alien to him, that
he did his best to smother it. It never entered his mind that here was a
matter which from its extreme questionableness, it was his duty as a
loyal blue-jacket to report in the proper quarter. And, probably, had
such a step been suggested to him, he would have been deterred from
taking it by the thought, one of novice-magnanimity, that it would savor
overmuch of the dirty work of a telltale. He kept the thing to himself.
Yet upon one occasion, he could not forbear a little disburthening
himself to the old Dansker, tempted thereto perhaps by the influence of
a balmy night when the ship lay becalmed; the twain, silent for the most
part, sitting together on deck, their heads propped against the
bulwarks. But it was only a partial and anonymous account that Billy
gave, the unfounded scruples above referred to preventing full
disclosure to anybody. Upon hearing Billy's version, the sage Dansker
seemed to divine more than he was told; and after a little meditation
during which his wrinkles were pursed as into a point, quite effacing
for the time that quizzing expression his face sometimes wore, "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 Jimmy Legs 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 had reference to a light puff of air
just then coming over the calm sea, or subtler relation to the
afterguardsman there is no telling, the old Merlin gave a twisting
wrench with his black teeth at his plug of tobacco, vouchsafing no reply
to Billy's impetuous question, tho' now repeated, for it was his wont to
relapse into grim silence when interrogated in skeptical sort as to any
of his sententious oracles, not always very clear ones, rather partaking
of that obscurity which invests most Delphic deliverances from any

Long experience had very likely brought this old man to that bitter
prudence which never interferes in aught and never gives advice.

Chapter 16

Yes, despite the Dansker's pithy insistence as to the Master-at-arms
being at the bottom of these strange experiences of Billy on board the
Indomitable, the young sailor was ready to ascribe them to almost
anybody but the man who, to use Billy's own expression, "always had a
pleasant word for him." This is to be wondered at. Yet not so much to be
wondered at. In certain matters, some sailors even in mature life remain
unsophisticated enough. But a young seafarer of the disposition of our
athletic Foretopman, is much of a child-man. And yet a child's utter
innocence is but its blank ignorance, and the innocence more or less
wanes as intelligence waxes. But in Billy Budd intelligence, such as it
was, had advanced, while yet his simplemindedness remained for the most
part unaffected. Experience is a teacher indeed; yet did Billy's years
make his experience small. Besides, he had none of that intuitive
knowledge of the bad which in natures not good or incompletely so
foreruns experience, and therefore may pertain, as in some instances it
too clearly does pertain, even to youth.

And what could Billy know of man except of man as a mere sailor? And the
old-fashioned sailor, the veritable man-before-the-mast, the sailor from
boyhood up, he, tho' indeed of the same species as a landsman, is in
some respects singularly distinct from him. The sailor is frankness, the
landsman is finesse. Life is not a game with the sailor, demanding the
long head; no intricate game of chess 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 in playing

Yes, as a class, sailors are in character a juvenile race. Even their
deviations are marked by juvenility. And this more especially holding
true with the sailors of Billy's time. Then, too, certain things which
apply to all sailors, do more pointedly operate, here and there, upon
the junior one. Every sailor, too, is accustomed to obey orders without
debating them; his life afloat is externally ruled for him; he is not
brought into that promiscuous commerce with mankind where unobstructed
free agency on equal terms---equal superficially, at least--soon teaches
one that unless upon occasion he exercise a distrust keen in proportion
to the fairness of the appearance, some foul turn may be served him. A
ruled undemonstrative distrustfulness is so habitual, not with
business-men so much, as with men who know their kind in less shallow
relations than business, namely, certain men-of-the-world, that they
come at last to employ it all but unconsciously; and some of them would
very likely feel real surprise at being charged with it as one of their
general characteristics.

Chapter 17

But after the little matter at the mess Billy Budd no more found himself
in strange trouble at times about his hammock or his clothesbag or what
not. While, as to that smile that occasionally sunned him, and the
pleasant passing word, these were if not more frequent, yet if anything,
more pronounced than before.

But for all that, there were certain other demonstrations now. When
Claggart's unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling
along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog-watch,
exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the
crowd; that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled
meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with
incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of
sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a
touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but
for fate and ban. But this was an evanescence, and quickly repented of,
as it were, by an immitigable look, pinching and shrivelling the visage
into the momentary semblance of a wrinkled walnut. But sometimes
catching sight in advance of the Foretopman coming in his direction, he
would, upon their nearing, step aside a little to let him pass, dwelling
upon Billy for the moment with the glittering dental satire of a Guise.
But upon any abrupt unforeseen encounter a red light would flash forth
from his eye like a spark from an anvil in a dusk smithy. That quick
fierce light was a strange one, darted from orbs which in repose were of
a color nearest approaching a deeper violet, the softest of shades.

Tho' some of these caprices of the pit could not but be observed by
their object, yet were they beyond the construing of such a nature. And
the thews of Billy were hardly compatible with that sort of sensitive
spiritual organisation which in some cases instinctively conveys to
ignorant innocence an admonition of the proximity of the malign. He
thought the Master-at-arms acted in a manner rather queer at times. That
was all. But the occasional frank air and pleasant word went for what
they purported to be, the young sailor never having heard as yet of the
"too fair-spoken man."

Had the Foretopman been conscious of having done or said anything to
provoke the ill will of the official, it would have been different with
him, and his sight might have been purged if not sharpened. As it was,
innocence was his blinder.

So was it with him in yet another matter. Two minor officers--the
Armorer and Captain of the Hold, with whom he had never exchanged a
word, his position in the ship not bringing him into contact with them;
these men now for the first began to cast upon Billy when they chanced
to encounter him, that peculiar glance which evidences that the man from
whom it comes has been some way tampered with and to the prejudice of
him upon whom the glance lights. Never did it occur to Billy as a thing
to be noted or a thing suspicious, tho' he well knew the fact, that the
Armorer and Captain of the Hold, with the ship's-yeoman, apothecary, and
others of that grade, were by naval usage, messmates of the
Master-at-arms, men with ears convenient to his confidential tongue.

But the general popularity that our Handsome Sailor's manly forwardness
bred upon occasion, and his irresistible good-nature, indicating no
mental superiority tending to excite an invidious feeling, this good
will on the part of most of his shipmates made him the less to concern
himself about such mute aspects toward him as those whereto allusion has
just been made, aspects he could not fathom as to infer their whole

As to the afterguardsman, tho' Billy for reasons already given
necessarily saw little of him, yet when the two did happen to meet,
invariably came the fellow's off-hand cheerful recognition, sometimes
accompanied by a passing pleasant word or two. Whatever that equivocal
young person's original design may really have been, or the design of
which he might have been the deputy, certain it was from his manner upon
these occasions, that he had wholly dropped it.

It was as if his precocity of crookedness (and every vulgar 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 possible for Billy to
refrain from going up to the afterguardsman and bluntly demanding to
know his purpose in the initial interview, so abruptly closed in the
fore-chains. Shrewd ones may also think it but natural in Billy to set
about sounding some of the other impressed men of the ship in order to
discover what basis, if any, there was for the emissary's obscure
suggestions as to plotting disaffection aboard. Yes, the shrewd may so
think. But something more, or rather, something else than mere
shrewdness is perhaps needful for the due understanding of such a
character as Billy Budd's.

As to Claggart, the monomania in the man--if that indeed it were--as
involuntarily disclosed by starts in the manifestations detailed, yet in
general covered over by his self-contained and rational demeanour; this,
like a subterranean fire was eating its way deeper and deeper in him.
Something decisive must come of it.

Chapter 18

After the mysterious interview in the fore-chains--the one so abruptly
ended there by Billy--nothing especially german to the story occurred
until the 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 the English squadron up the
Straits at that period, the Indomitable was occasionally employed not
only as an available substitute for a scout, but at times on detached
service of more important kind. This was not alone because of her
sailing qualities, not common in a ship of her rate, but quite as much,
probably, that the character of her commander, it was thought, specially
adapted him for any duty where under unforeseen difficulties a prompt
initiative might have to be taken in some matter demanding knowledge and
ability in addition to those qualities implied in good seamanship. It
was on an expedition of the latter sort, a somewhat distant one, and
when the Indomitable was almost at her furthest remove from the fleet,
that in the latter part of an afternoon-watch she unexpectedly came in
sight of a ship of the enemy. It proved to be a frigate. The latter
perceiving thro' the glass that the weight of men and metal would be
heavily against her, invoking her light heels, crowded sail to get away.
After a chase urged almost against hope and lasting until about the
middle of the first dog-watch, she signally succeeded in effecting her

Not long after the pursuit had been given up, and ere the excitement
incident thereto had altogether waned away, the Master-at-arms,
ascending from his cavernous sphere, made his appearance cap in hand by
the main-mast, respectfully waiting the notice of Captain Vere then
solitary 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 to men of lesser grades seeking some more
particular interview either with the officer-of-the-deck or the Captain
himself. But from the latter it was not often that a sailor or
petty--officer of those days would seek a hearing; only some exceptional
cause, would, according to established custom, have warranted that.

Presently, just as the Commander absorbed in his reflections was on the
point of turning aft in his promenade, he became sensible of Claggart's
presence, and saw the doffed cap held in deferential expectancy. Here be
it said that Captain Vere's personal knowledge of this petty-officer had
only begun at the time of the ship's last sailing from home, Claggart
then for the first, in transfer from a ship detained for repairs,
supplying on board the Indomitable the place of a previous
master-at-arms disabled and ashore.

No sooner did the Commander observe who it was that deferentially stood
awaiting his notice, than a peculiar expression came over him. It was
not unlike that which uncontrollably will flit across the countenance of
one at unawares encountering a person who, though known to him indeed,
has hardly been long enough known for thorough knowledge, but something
in whose aspect nevertheless now for the first provokes a vaguely
repellent distaste. But coming to a stand, and resuming much of his
wonted official manner, save that a sort of impatience lurked in the
intonation of the opening word, he said, "Well? what is it,

With the air of a subordinate grieved at the necessity of being a
messenger of ill tidings, and while conscientiously determined to be
frank, yet equally resolved upon shunning overstatement, Claggart, at
this invitation or rather summons to disburthen, spoke up. What he said,
conveyed in the language of no uneducated man, was to the effect
following, if not altogether in these words, namely, that during the
chase and preparations for the possible encounter he had seen enough to
convince him that at least one sailor aboard was a dangerous character
in a ship mustering some who not only had taken a guilty part in the
late serious troubles, but others also who, like the man in question,
had entered His Majesty's service under another form than enlistment.

At this point Captain Vere with some impatience interrupted him: "Be
direct, man; say impressed men."

Claggart made a gesture of subservience, and proceeded. Quite lately he
(Claggart) had begun to suspect that on the gun decks some sort of
movement prompted by the sailor in question was covertly going on, but
he had not thought himself warranted in reporting the suspicion so long
as it remained indistinct. But from what he had that afternoon observed
in the man referred to, the suspicion of something clandestine going on
had advanced to a point less removed from certainty. He deeply felt, he
added, the serious responsibility assumed in making a report involving
such possible consequences to the individual mainly concerned, besides
tending to augment those natural anxieties which every naval commander
must feel in view of extraordinary outbreaks so recent as those which,
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 disquietude. But as Claggart
went on, the former's aspect changed into restiveness under something in
the witness' manner in giving his testimony. However, he refrained from
interrupting him. And Claggart, continuing, concluded with this: "God
forbid, Your Honor, that the Indomitable's should be the experience of

"Never mind that!" here peremptorily broke in the superior, his face
altering with anger, instinctively divining the ship that the other was
about to name, one in which the Nore Mutiny had assumed a singularly
tragical character that for a time jeopardized the life of its
commander. Under the circumstances he was indignant at the purposed
allusion. When the commissioned officers themselves were on all
occasions very heedful how they referred to the recent events, for a
petty-officer unnecessarily to allude to them in the presence of his
Captain, this struck him as a most immodest presumption. Besides, to his
quick sense of self-respect, it even looked under the circumstances
something like an attempt to alarm him. Nor at first was he without some
surprise that one who so far as he had hitherto come under his notice
had shown considerable tact in his function should in this particular
evince such lack of it.

But these thoughts and kindred dubious ones flitting across his mind
were suddenly replaced by an intuitional surmise which, though as yet
obscure in form, served practically to affect his reception of the ill
tidings. Certain it is, that long versed in everything pertaining to the
complicated gun-deck life, which like every other form of life, has its
secret mines and dubious side, the side popularly disclaimed, Captain
Vere did not permit himself to be unduly disturbed by the general tenor
of his subordinate's report.

Furthermore, if in view of recent events prompt action should be taken
at the first palpable sign of recurring insubordination, for all that,
not judicious would it be, he thought, to keep the idea of lingering
disaffection alive by undue forwardness in crediting an informer, even
if his own subordinate, and charged among other things with police
surveillance of the crew. This feeling would not perhaps have so
prevailed with him were it not that upon a prior occasion the patriotic
zeal officially evinced by Claggart had somewhat irritated him as
appearing rather supersensible and strained. Furthermore, something even
in the official's self-possessed and somewhat ostentatious manner in
making his specifications strangely reminded him of a bandsman, a
perjurous witness in a capital case before a courtmartial ashore of
which when a lieutenant, he, Captain Vere, had been a member.

Now the peremptory check given to Claggart in the matter of the arrested
allusion was quickly followed up by this: "You say that there is at
least one dangerous man aboard. Name him."

"William Budd. A foretopman, Your Honor-"

"William Budd," repeated Captain Vere with unfeigned astonishment; "and
mean you the man that Lieutenant Ratcliff took from the merchantman not
very long ago--the young fellow who seems to be so popular with the
men--Billy, the 'Handsome Sailor,' as they call him?"

"The same, Your Honor; but for all his youth and good looks, a deep one.
Not for nothing does he insinuate himself into the good will of his
shipmates, since at the least all hands will at a pinch say a good word
for him at all hazards. Did Lieutenant Ratcliff happen to tell Your
Honor of that adroit fling of Budd's, jumping up in the cutter's bow
under the merchantman's stern when he was being taken 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 be under
his ruddy-tipped daisies."

Now the Handsome Sailor, as a signal figure among the crew, had
naturally enough attracted the Captain's attention from the first. Tho'
in general not very demonstrative to his officers, he had congratulated
Lieutenant Ratcliff upon his good fortune in lighting on such a fine
specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a
statue of young Adam before the Fall. As to Billy's adieu to the ship
Rights-of-Man, which the boarding lieutenant had indeed reported to him,
but in a deferential way more as a good story than aught else, Captain
Vere, tho' mistakenly understanding it as a satiric sally, had but
thought so much the better of the impressed man for it; as a military
sailor, admiring the spirit that could take an arbitrary enlistment so
merrily and sensibly. The Foretopman's conduct, too, so far as it had
fallen under the Captain's notice, had confirmed the first happy augury,
while the new recruit's qualities as a sailor-man seemed to be such that
he had thought of recommending him to the executive officer for
promotion to a place that would more frequently bring him under his own
observation, namely, the captaincy of the mizzentop, replacing there in
the starboard watch a man not so young whom partly for that reason he
deemed less fitted for the post. Be it parenthesized here that since the
mizzentopmen having not to handle such breadths of heavy canvas as the
lower sails on the main-mast and fore-mast, a young man if of the right
stuff not only seems best adapted to duty there, but in fact is
generally selected for the captaincy of that top, and the company under
him are light hands and often but striplings. In sum, Captain Vere had
from the beginning deemed Billy Budd to be what in the naval parlance of
the time was called a "King's bargain," that is to say, for His
Britannic Majesty's Navy a capital investment at small outlay or none at

After a brief pause during which the reminiscences above mentioned
passed vividly through his mind and he weighed the import of Claggart's
last suggestion conveyed in the phrase "man-trap under his daisies," and
the more he weighed it the less reliance he felt in the informer's good
faith, suddenly he turned upon him and in a low voice: "Do you come to
me, Master-at-arms, with so foggy a tale? As to Budd, cite me an act or
spoken word of his confirmatory of what you in general charge against
him. Stay," drawing nearer to him, "heed what you speak. Just now, and
in a case like this, there is a yard--arm-end for the false-witness."

"Ah, Your Honor!" sighed Claggart, mildly shaking his shapely head as in
sad deprecation of such unmerited severity of tone. Then,
bridling--erecting himself as in virtuous self-assertion--he
circumstantially alleged certain words and acts, which collectively, if
credited, led to presumptions mortally inculpating Budd. And for some of
these averments, he added, substantiating proof was not far.

With gray eyes impatient and distrustful essaying to fathom to the
bottom Claggart's calm violet ones, Captain Vere again heard him out;
then for the moment stood ruminating. The mood he evinced,
Claggart---himself for the time liberated from the other's
scrutiny--steadily regarded with a look difficult to render,--a look
curious of the operation of his tactics, a look such as might have been
that of the spokesman of the envious children of Jacob deceptively
imposing upon the troubled patriarch the blood-dyed coat of young

Though something exceptional in the moral quality of Captain Vere made
him, in earnest encounter with a fellow-man, a veritable touch-stone of
that man's essential nature, yet now as to Claggart and what was really
going on in him, his feeling partook less of intuitional conviction than
of strong suspicion clogged by strange dubieties. The perplexity he
evinced proceeded less from aught touching the man informed against--as
Claggart doubtless opined--than from considerations how best to act in
regard to the informer. At first indeed he was naturally for summoning
that substantiation of his allegations which Claggart said was at hand.
But such a proceeding would result in the matter at once getting abroad,
which in the present stage of it, he thought, might undesirably affect
the ship's company. If Claggart was a false witness,--that closed the
affair. And therefore before trying the accusation, he would first
practically test the accuser; and he thought this could be done in a
quiet undemonstrative way.

The measure he determined upon involved a shifting of the scene, a
transfer to a place less exposed to observation than the broad
quarter-deck. For although the few gun-room officers there at the time
had, in due observance of naval etiquette, withdrawn to leeward the
moment Captain Vere had begun his promenade on the deck's weather-side;
and tho' during the colloquy with Claggart they of course ventured not
to diminish the distance; and though throughout the interview Captain
Vere's voice was far from high, and Claggart's silvery and low; and the
wind in the cordage and the wash of the sea helped the more to put them
beyond earshot; nevertheless, the interview's continuance already had
attracted observation from some topmen aloft and other sailors in the
waist or further forward.

Having determined upon his measures, Captain Vere forthwith took action.
Abruptly turning to Claggart he asked, "Master-at-arms, is it now Budd's
watch aloft?"

"No, Your Honor."

Whereupon, "Mr. Wilkes!" summoning the nearest midshipman, "tell Albert
to come to me." Albert was the Captain's hammock-boy, a sort of
sea-valet in whose discretion and fidelity his master had much
confidence. The lad appeared.

"You know Budd the Foretopman?"

"I do, Sir."

"Go find him. It is his watch off. Manage to tell him out of earshot
that he is wanted aft. Contrive it that he speaks to nobody. Keep him in
talk yourself. And not till you get well aft here, not till then let him
know that the place where he is wanted is my cabin. You understand.
Go.--Master-at-arms, show yourself on the decks below, and when you
think it time for Albert to be coming with his man, stand by quietly to
follow the sailor in."

Chapter 19

Now when the Foretopman found himself closeted there, as it were, in the
cabin with the Captain and Claggart, he was surprised enough. But it was
a surprise unaccompanied by apprehension or distrust. To an immature
nature essentially honest and humane, forewarning intimations of subtler
danger from one's kind come tardily if at all. The only thing that took
shape in the young sailor's mind was this: Yes, the Captain, I have
always thought, looks kindly upon me. Wonder if he's going to make me
his coxswain. I should like that. And maybe now he is going to ask the
Master-at-arms about 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 to me;" and stood prepared to scrutinize the
mutually confronting visages.

With the measured step and calm collected air of an asylum-physician
approaching in the public hall some patient beginning to show
indications of a coming paroxysm, Claggart deliberately advanced within
short range of Billy, and mesmerically looking him in the eye, briefly
recapitulated 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. He stood like one impaled and
gagged. Meanwhile the accuser's eyes removing not as yet from the blue
dilated ones, underwent a phenomenal change, their wonted rich violet
color blurring into a muddy purple. Those lights of human intelligence
losing human expression, gelidly protruding like the alien eyes of
certain uncatalogued creatures of the deep. The first mesmeric glance
was one of serpent fascination; the last was as the hungry lurch of the

"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 dumb gesturing and gurgling in Billy;
amazement at such an accusation so suddenly sprung on inexperienced
nonage; this, and, it may be, horror of the accuser, serving to bring
out his lurking defect and in this instance for the time intensifying it
into a convulsed tongue-tie; while the intent head and entire form
straining forward in an agony of ineffectual eagerness to obey the
injunction to speak and defend himself, gave an expression to the face
like that of a condemned Vestal priestess in the moment of being buried
alive, and in the first struggle against suffocation.

Though at the time Captain Vere was quite ignorant of Billy's liability
to vocal impediment, he now immediately divined it, since vividly
Billy's aspect recalled to him that of a bright young schoolmate of his
whom he had once seen struck by much the same startling impotence in the
act of eagerly rising in the class to be foremost in response to a
testing question put to it by the master. Going close up to the young
sailor, and laying a soothing hand on his shoulder, he said, "There is
no hurry, my boy. Take your time, take your time." Contrary to the
effect intended, these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touching
Billy's heart to the quick, prompted yet more violent efforts at
utterance--efforts soon ending for the time in confirming the paralysis,
and bringing to his face an expression which was as a crucifixion to
behold. The next instant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at
night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck. Whether
intentionally or but owing to the young athlete's superior height, the
blow had taken effect fully upon the forehead, so shapely and
intellectual-looking a feature in the Master-at-arms; so that the body
fell over lengthwise, like a heavy plank tilted from erectness. A gasp
or two, and he lay motionless.

"Fated boy," breathed Captain Vere in tone so low as to be almost a
whisper, "what have you done! But here, help me."

The twain raised the felled one from the loins up into a sitting
position. The spare form flexibly acquiesced, but inertly. It was like
handling a dead snake. They lowered it back. Regaining erectness Captain
Vere with one hand covering his face stood to all appearance as
impassive as the object at his feet. Was he absorbed in taking in all
the bearings of the event and what was best not only now at once to be
done, but also in the sequel? Slowly he uncovered his face; and the
effect was as if the moon emerging from eclipse should reappear with
quite another aspect than that which had gone into hiding. The father in
him, manifested towards Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the
military disciplinarian. In his official tone he bade the Foretopman
retire to a state-room aft (pointing it out), and there remain till
thence summoned. This order Billy in silence mechanically obeyed. Then
going to the cabin-door where it opened on the quarter-deck, Captain
Vere said to the sentry without, "Tell somebody to send Albert here."
When the lad appeared his master so contrived it that he should not
catch sight of the prone one. "Albert," he said to him, "tell the
Surgeon I wish to see him. You need not come back till called."

When the Surgeon entered--a self-poised character of that grave sense
and experience that hardly anything could take him aback,--Captain Vere
advanced to meet him, thus unconsciously intercepting his view of
Claggart, and interrupting the other's wonted ceremonious salutation,
said, "Nay, tell me how it is with yonder man," directing his attention
to the prostrate one.

The Surgeon looked, and for all his self-command, somewhat started at
the abrupt revelation. On Claggart's always pallid complexion, thick
black blood was now oozing from nostril and ear. To the gazer's
professional eye it was unmistakably no living man that he saw.

"Is it so then?" said Captain Vere intently watching him. "I thought it.
But verify it." Whereupon the customary tests confirmed the Surgeon's
first glance, who now looking up in unfeigned concern, cast a look of
intense inquisitiveness upon his superior. But Captain Vere, with one
hand to his brow, was standing motionless. Suddenly, catching the
Surgeon's arm convulsively, he exclaimed, pointing down to the body--"It
is the divine judgement on Ananias! Look!"

Disturbed by the excited manner he had never before observed in the
Indomitable's Captain, and as yet wholly ignorant of the affair, the
prudent Surgeon nevertheless held his peace, only again looking an
earnest interrogation as to what it was that had resulted in such a

But Captain Vere was now again motionless standing absorbed in thought.
But again starting, he vehemently exclaimed--"Struck dead by an angel of
God! Yet the angel must hang!"

At these passionate interjections, mere incoherences to the listener as
yet unapprised of the antecedents, the Surgeon was profoundly
discomposed. But now as recollecting himself, Captain Vere in less
passionate tone briefly related the circumstances leading up to the

"But come; we must despatch," he added, "help me to remove him" (meaning the
body) "to yonder compartment," designating one opposite that where the
Foretopman remained immured. Anew disturbed by a request that as
implying a desire for secrecy, seemed unaccountably strange to him,
there was nothing for the subordinate to do but comply.

"Go now," said Captain Vere with something of his wonted manner--"Go
now. I shall presently call a drum-head court. Tell the lieutenants what
has happened, and tell Mr. Mordant," meaning the Captain of Marines,
"and charge them to keep the matter to themselves."

Chapter 20

Full of disquietude and misgiving the Surgeon left the cabin. Was
Captain Vere suddenly affected in his mind, or was it but a transient
excitement, brought about by so strange and extraordinary a happening?
As to the drum-head court, it struck the Surgeon as impolitic, if
nothing more. The thing to do, he thought, was to place Billy Budd in
confinement and in a way dictated by usage, and postpone further action
in so extraordinary a case to such time as they should rejoin the
squadron, and then refer it to the Admiral. He recalled the unwonted
agitation of Captain Vere and his excited exclamations so at variance
with his normal manner. Was he unhinged?

But assuming that he is, it is not so susceptible of proof. What then
can he do? No more trying situation is conceivable than that of an
officer subordinate under a Captain whom he suspects to be, not mad
indeed, but yet not quite unaffected in his intellect. To argue his
order to him would be insolence. To resist him would be mutiny.

In obedience to Captain Vere he communicated what had happened to the
lieutenants and Captain of Marines; saying nothing as to the Captain's
state. They fully shared his own surprise and concern. Like him too they
seemed to think that such a matter should be referred to the Admiral.

Chapter 21

Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the
orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but
where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So
with sanity and insanity. In pronounced cases there is no question about
them. But in some supposed cases, in various degrees supposedly less
pronounced, to draw the exact line of demarkation few will undertake
tho' for a fee some professional experts will. There is nothing namable
but that some men will undertake to do it for pay.

Whether Captain Vere, as the Surgeon professionally and privately
surmised, was really the sudden victim of any degree of aberration, one
must determine for himself by such light as this narrative may afford.

That the unhappy event which has been narrated could not have happened
at a worse juncture was but too true. For it was close on the heel of
the suppressed insurrections, an aftertime very critical to naval
authority, demanding from every English sea-commander two qualities not
readily interfusable--prudence and rigour. Moreover there was something
crucial in the case.

In the jugglery of circumstances preceding and attending the event on
board the Indomitable, and in the light of that martial code whereby it
was formally to be judged, innocence and guilt personified in Claggart
and Budd in effect changed places. In a legal view the apparent victim
of the tragedy was he who had sought to victimize a man blameless; and
the indisputable deed of the latter, navally regarded, constituted the
most heinous of military crimes. Yet more. The essential right and wrong
involved in the matter, the clearer that might be, so much the worse for
the responsibility of a loyal sea-commander inasmuch as he was not
authorized to determine the matter on that primitive basis.

Small wonder then that the Indomitable's Captain, though in general a
man of rapid decision, felt that circumspectness not less than
promptitude was necessary. Until he could decide upon his course, and in
each detail; and not only so, but until the concluding measure was upon
the point of being enacted, he deemed it advisable, in view of all the
circumstances, to guard as much as possible against publicity. Here he
may or may not have erred. Certain it is, however, that subsequently in
the confidential talk of more than one or two gun-rooms and 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. Some imaginative ground for invidious comment
there was. The maintenance of secrecy in the matter, the confining all
knowledge of it for a time to the place where the homicide occurred, the
quarter-deck cabin; in these particulars lurked some resemblance to the
policy adopted in those tragedies of the palace which have occurred more
than once in the capital founded by Peter the Barbarian.

The case indeed was such that fain would the Indomitable's Captain have
deferred taking any action whatever respecting it further than to keep
the Foretopman a close prisoner till the ship rejoined the squadron, and
then submitting the matter to the judgement of his Admiral.

But a true military officer is in one particular like a true monk. Not
with more of self-abnegation will the latter keep his vows of monastic
obedience than the former his vows of allegiance to martial duty.

Feeling that unless quick action was taken on it, the deed of the
Foretopman, so soon as it should be known on the gun decks, would tend
to awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew, a sense of
the urgency of the case overruled in Captain Vere every other
consideration. But tho' a conscientious disciplinarian, he was no lover
of authority for mere authority's sake. Very far was he from embracing
opportunities for monopolizing to himself the perils of moral
responsibility, none at least that could properly be referred to an
official superior, or shared with him by his official equals or even
subordinates. So thinking, he was glad it would not be at variance with
usage to turn the matter over to a summary court of his own officers,
reserving to himself as the one on whom the ultimate accountability
would rest, the right of maintaining a supervision of it, or formally or
informally interposing at need. Accordingly a drum--head court was
summarily convened, he electing the individuals composing it, the First
Lieutenant, the Captain of Marines, and the Sailing Master.

In associating an officer of marines with the sea-lieutenants in a case
having to do with a sailor, the Commander perhaps deviated from general
custom. He was prompted thereto by the circumstance that he took that
soldier to be a judicious person, thoughtful, and not altogether
incapable of grappling with a difficult case unprecedented in his prior
experience. Yet even as to him he was not without some latent misgiving,
for withal he was an extremely goodnatured man, an enjoyer of his
dinner, a sound sleeper, and inclined to obesity, a man who tho' he
would always maintain his manhood in battle might not prove altogether
reliable in a moral dilemma involving aught of the tragic. As to the
First Lieutenant and the Sailing Master, Captain Vere could not but be
aware that though honest natures, of approved gallantry upon occasion,
their intelligence was mostly confined to the matter of active
seamanship and the fighting demands of their profession.

The court was held in the same cabin where the unfortunate affair had
taken place. This cabin, the Commander's, embraced the entire area under
the poopdeck. Aft, and on either side, was a small state-room; the one
room temporarily a jail and the other a dead-house, and a yet smaller
compartment leaving a space between, expanding forward into a goodly
oblong of length coinciding with the ship's beam. A skylight of moderate
dimension was overhead and at each end of the oblong space were two
sashed port-hole windows easily convertible back into embrasures for
short carronades.

All being quickly in readiness, Billy Budd was arraigned, Captain Vere
necessarily appearing as the sole witness in the case, and as such,
temporarily sinking his rank, though singularly maintaining it in a
matter apparently trivial, namely, that he testified from the ship's
weather-side, with that object having caused the court to sit on the
lee-side. Concisely he narrated all that had led up to the catastrophe,
omitting nothing in Claggart's accusation and deposing as to the manner
in which the prisoner had received it. At this testimony the three
officers glanced with no little surprise at Billy Budd, the last man
they would have suspected either of the mutinous design alleged by
Claggart or the undeniable deed he himself had done. The First
Lieutenant, taking judicial primacy and turning toward the prisoner,
said, "Captain Vere has spoken. Is it or is it not as Captain Vere

In response came syllables not so much impeded in the utterance as might
have been anticipated. They were these: "Captain Vere tells the truth.
It is just as Captain Vere says, but it is not as the Master-at-arms
said. I have eaten the King's bread and I am true to the King."

"I believe you, my man," said the witness, his voice indicating a
suppressed emotion not otherwise betrayed.

"God will bless you for that, Your Honor!" not without stammering said
Billy, and all but broke down. But immediately was recalled to
self-control by another question, to which with the same emotional
difficulty of utterance he said, "No, there was no malice between us. I
never bore malice against the Master-at-arms. I am sorry that he is
dead. I did not mean to kill him. Could I have used my tongue I would
not have struck him. But he foully lied to my face and in presence of my
Captain, and I had to 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 words that just previously had
perplexed them, coming as they did from the testifier to the tragedy and
promptly following 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 suspected aught savoring
of incipient trouble (meaning mutiny, tho' the explicit term was
avoided) going on in any section of the ship's company.

The reply lingered. This was naturally imputed by the court to the same
vocal embarrassment which had retarded or obstructed previous answers.
But in main it was otherwise here; the question immediately recalling to
Billy's mind the interview with the afterguardsman in the fore-chains.
But an innate repugnance to playing a part at all approaching that of an
informer against one's own shipmates--the same erring sense of
uninstructed honor which had stood in the way of his reporting the
matter at the time though as a loyal man-of-war-man it was incumbent on
him, and failure so to do if charged against him and proven, would have
subjected him to the heaviest of penalties; this, with the blind feeling
now his, that nothing really was being hatched, prevailed with him. When
the answer came it was a negative.

"One question more," said the officer of marines now first speaking and
with a troubled earnestness. "You tell us that what the Master-at-arms
said against you was a lie. 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 spiritual sphere wholly
obscure to Billy's thoughts, he was nonplussed, evincing a confusion
indeed that some observers, such as can readily be imagined, would have
construed into involuntary evidence of hidden guilt. Nevertheless he
strove some way to answer, but all at once relinquished the vain
endeavor, at the same time turning an appealing glance towards Captain
Vere as deeming him his best helper and friend. Captain Vere who had
been seated for a time rose to his feet, addressing the interrogator.
"The question you put to him comes naturally enough. But how can he
rightly answer it? or anybody else? unless indeed it be he who lies
within there," designating the compartment where lay the corpse. "But
the prone one there will not rise to our summons. In effect, tho', as it
seems to me, the point you make is hardly material. Quite aside from any
conceivable motive actuating the Master-at-arms, and irrespective of the
provocation to the blow, a martial court must needs in the present case
confine its attention to the blow's consequence, which consequence
justly is to be deemed not otherwise than as the striker's deed."

This utterance, the full significance of which it was not at all likely
that Billy took in, nevertheless caused him to turn a wistful
interrogative look toward the speaker, a look in its dumb expressiveness
not unlike that which a dog of generous breed might turn upon his master
seeking in his face some elucidation of a previous gesture ambiguous to
the canine intelligence. Nor was the same utterance without marked
effect upon the three officers, more especially the soldier. Couched in
it seemed to them a meaning unanticipated, involving a prejudgement on
the speaker's part. It served to augment a mental disturbance previously
evident enough.

The soldier once more spoke; in a tone of suggestive dubiety addressing
at once his associates and Captain Vere: "Nobody is present--none of the
ship's company, I mean--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 your drift. Ay,
there is a mystery; but, to use a Scriptural phrase, it is 'a mystery of
iniquity,' a matter for psychologic theologians to discuss. But what has
a military court to do with it? Not to add that for us any possible
investigation of it is cut off by the lasting tongue-tie of--him--in
yonder," again designating the mortuary stateroom. "The prisoner's
deed,--with that alone we have to do."

To this, and particularly the closing reiteration, the marine soldier
knowing not how aptly to reply, sadly abstained from saying aught. The
First Lieutenant who at the outset had not unnaturally assumed primacy
in the court, now overrulingly instructed by a glance from Captain Vere,
a glance more effective than words, resumed that primacy. Turning to the
prisoner, "Budd," he said, and scarce in equable tones, "Budd, if you
have aught further to say for yourself, say it now."

Upon this the young sailor turned another quick glance toward Captain
Vere; then, as taking a hint from that aspect, a hint confirming his own
instinct that silence was now best, replied to the Lieutenant, "I have
said all, Sir."

The marine--the same who had been the sentinel without the cabin-door at
the time that the Foretopman followed by the Master-at-arms, entered
it--he, standing by the sailor throughout these judicial proceedings,
was now directed to take him back to the after compartment originally
assigned to the prisoner and his custodian. As the twain disappeared
from view, the three officers as partially liberated from some inward
constraint associated with Billy's mere presence, simultaneously stirred
in their 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 unconsciously with his back toward them, apparently
in one of his absent fits, gazing out from a sashed port-hole to
windward upon the monotonous blank of the twilight sea. But the court's
silence continuing, broken only at moments by brief consultations in low
earnest tones, this seemed to arm him and energize him. Turning, he
to-and-fro paced the cabin athwart; in the returning ascent to windward,
climbing the slant deck in the ship's lee roll; without knowing it
symbolizing thus in his action a mind resolute to surmount difficulties
even if against primitive instincts strong as the wind and the sea.
Presently he came to a stand before the three. After scanning their
faces he stood less as mustering his thoughts for expression, than as
one inly deliberating how best to put them to well-meaning men not
intellectually mature, men with whom it was necessary to demonstrate
certain principles that were axioms to himself. Similar impatience as to
talking is perhaps one reason that deters some minds from addressing any
popular assemblies.

When speak he did, something both in the substance of what he said and
his manner of saying it, showed the influence of unshared studies
modifying and tempering the practical training of an active career.
This, along with his phraseology, now and then was suggestive of the
grounds whereon rested that imputation of a certain pedantry socially
alleged against him by certain naval men of wholly practical cast,
captains who nevertheless would frankly concede that His Majesty's Navy
mustered no more efficient officer of their grade than Starry Vere.

What he said was to this effect: "Hitherto I have been but the witness,
little more; and I should hardly think now to take another tone, that of
your coadjutor, for the time, did I not perceive in you,--at the crisis
too--a troubled hesitancy, proceeding, I doubt not, from the clash of
military duty with moral scruple---scruple vitalized by compassion. For
the compassion, how can I otherwise than share it? But, mindful of
paramount obligations I strive against scruples that may tend to
enervate decision. Not, gentlemen, that I hide from myself that the case
is an exceptional one. Speculatively regarded, it well might be referred
to a jury of casuists. But for us here acting not as casuists or
moralists, it is a case practical, and under martial law practically to
be dealt with.

"But your scruples: do they move as in a dusk? Challenge them. Make them
advance and declare themselves. Come now: do they import something like
this? If, mindless of palliating circumstances, we are bound to regard
the death of the Master-at-arms as the prisoner's deed, then does that
deed constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a mortal one? But
in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be
considered? How can we adjudge to summary and shameful death a
fellow-creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to 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 allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King. Though the
ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, tho' this be the element
where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King's officers
lies our duty in a sphere correspondingly natural? So little is that
true, that in receiving our commissions we in the most important regards
ceased to be natural free-agents. When war is declared are we the
commissioned fighters previously consulted? We fight at command. If our
judgements approve the war, that is but coincidence. So in other
particulars. So now. For suppose condemnation to follow these present
proceedings. Would it be so much we ourselves that would condemn as it
would be martial law operating through us? For that law and the rigour
of it, we are not responsible. Our avowed responsibility is in this:
That however pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to
it and administer it.

"But the exceptional in the matter moves the hearts within you. Even so
too is mine moved. But let not warm hearts betray heads that should be
cool. Ashore in a criminal case will an upright judge allow himself off
the bench to be waylaid by some tender kinswoman of the accused seeking
to touch him with her tearful plea? Well the heart here denotes the
feminine in man is as that piteous woman, and hard tho' it be, she must
here be ruled out."

He paused, earnestly studying them for a moment; then resumed.

"But something in your aspect seems to urge that it is not solely the
heart that moves in you, but also the conscience, the private
conscience. But tell me whether or not, occupying the position we do,
private conscience should not yield to that imperial one formulated in
the code under which alone we officially proceed?"

Here the three men moved in their seats, less convinced than agitated by
the course of an argument troubling but the 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 in grade, and the blow kills.
Apart from its effect, the blow itself 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 neither mutiny nor homicide."

"Surely not, my good man. And before a court less arbitrary and more
merciful than a martial one, that plea would largely extenuate. At the
Last Assizes it shall acquit. But how here? We proceed under the law of
the Mutiny Act. In feature no child can resemble his father more than
that Act resembles in spirit the thing from which it derives--War. In
His Majesty's service--in this ship indeed--there are Englishmen forced
to fight for the King against their will. Against their conscience, for
aught we know. Tho' as their fellow-creatures some of us may appreciate
their position, yet as navy officers, what reck we of it? Still less
recks the enemy. Our impressed men he would fain cut down in the same
swath with our volunteers. As regards the enemy's naval conscripts, some
of whom may even share our own abhorrence of the regicidal French
Directory, it is the same on our side. War looks but to the frontage,
the appearance. And the Mutiny Act, War's child, takes after the father.
Budd's intent or non-intent is nothing to the purpose.

"But while, put to it by these anxieties in you which I can not but
respect, I only repeat myself--while thus strangely we prolong
proceedings that should be summary--the enemy may be sighted and an
engagement result. 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 falteringly, for the first.

"Lieutenant, were that clearly lawful for us under the circumstances,
consider the consequences of such clemency. The people," (meaning the
ship's company) "have native-sense; most of them are familiar with our
naval usage and tradition; and how would they take it? Even could you
explain to them--which our official position forbids--they, long moulded
by arbitrary discipline have not that kind of intelligent responsiveness
that might qualify them to comprehend and discriminate. No, to the
people the Foretopman's deed, however it be worded in the announcement,
will be plain homicide committed in a flagrant act of mutiny. What
penalty for that should follow, they know. But it does not follow. Why?
they will ruminate. You know what sailors are. Will they not revert to
the recent outbreak at the Nore? Ay. They know the well-founded
alarm--the panic it struck throughout England. Your clement sentence
they would account pusillanimous. They would think that we flinch, that
we are afraid of them--afraid of practising a lawful rigour singularly
demanded at this juncture lest it should provoke new troubles. What
shame to us such a conjecture on their 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.
I feel as you do for this unfortunate boy. But did he know our hearts, I
take him to be of that generous nature that he would feel even for us on
whom in this military necessity so heavy a compulsion is laid."

With that, crossing the deck he resumed his place by the sashed
port-hole, tacitly leaving the three to come to a decision. On the
cabin's opposite side the troubled court sat silent. Loyal lieges, plain
and practical, though at bottom they dissented from some points Captain
Vere had put to them, they were without the faculty, hardly had the
inclination, to gainsay one whom they felt to be an earnest man, one
too not less their superior in mind than in naval rank. But it is not
improbable that even such of his words as were not without influence
over them, less came home to them than his closing appeal to their
instinct as sea-officers in the forethought he threw out as to the
practical consequences to discipline, considering the unconfirmed tone
of the fleet at the time, should a man-of-war's-man's violent killing at
sea of a superior in grade be allowed to pass for aught else than a
capital crime demanding prompt infliction of the penalty.

Not unlikely they were brought to something more or less akin to that
harassed frame of mind which in the year 1842 actuated the Commander of
the U.S. brig-of-war Somers to resolve, under the so-called Articles of
War, Articles modelled upon the English Mutiny Act, to resolve upon 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 peace and within not many days of home. An act
vindicated by a naval court of inquiry subsequently convened ashore.
History, and here cited without comment. True, the circumstances on
board the Somers were different from those on board the Indomitable. But
the urgency felt, well-warranted or otherwise, was much the same.

Says a writer whom few know, "Forty years after a battle it is easy for
a non-combatant to reason about how it ought to have been fought. It is
another thing personally and under fire to direct the fighting while
involved in the obscuring smoke of it. Much so with respect to other
emergencies involving considerations both practical and moral, and when
it is imperative promptly to act. The greater the fog the more it
imperils the steamer, and speed is put on tho' at the hazard of running
somebody down. Little ween the snug card-players in the cabin of the
responsibilities of the sleepless man on the bridge."

In brief, Billy Budd was formally convicted and sentenced to be hung at
the yard-arm in the early morning watch, it being now night. Otherwise,
as is customary in such cases, the sentence would forthwith have been
carried out. In war-time on the field or in the fleet, a mortal
punishment decreed by a drum-head court--on the field sometimes decreed
by but a nod from the General--follows without delay on the heel of
conviction without appeal.

Chapter 22

It was Captain Vere himself who of his own motion communicated the
finding of the court to the prisoner; for that purpose going to the
compartment where he was in custody and bidding the marine there to
withdraw for the time.

Beyond the communication of the sentence what took place at this
interview was never known. But in view of the character of the twain
briefly closeted in that state-room, each radically sharing in the rarer
qualities of our nature--so rare indeed as to be all but incredible to
average minds however much cultivated--some conjectures may be ventured.

It would have been in consonance with the spirit of Captain Vere should
he on this occasion have concealed nothing from the condemned
one--should he indeed have frankly disclosed to him the part he himself
had played in bringing about the decision, at the same time revealing
his actuating motives. On Billy's side it is not improbable that such a
confession would have been received in much the same spirit that
prompted it. Not without a sort of joy indeed he might have appreciated
the brave opinion of him implied in his Captain's making such a
confidant of him. Nor, as to the sentence itself could he have been
insensible that it was imparted to him as to one not afraid to die. Even
more may have been. Captain Vere in the end may have developed the
passion sometimes latent under an exterior stoical or indifferent. He
was old enough to have been Billy's father. The austere devotee of
military duty, letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in
our formalized humanity, may in the end have caught Billy to his heart
even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely
offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest. But there is no
telling the sacrament, seldom if in any case revealed to the gadding
world, wherever under circumstances at all akin to those here attempted
to be set forth, two of great Nature's nobler order embrace. There is
privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor, and holy oblivion, the
sequel to each diviner magnanimity, providentially covers all at last.

The first to encounter Captain Vere in act of leaving the compartment
was the senior Lieutenant. The face he beheld, for the moment one
expressive of the agony of the strong, was to that officer, tho' a man
of fifty, a startling revelation. That the condemned one suffered less
than he who mainly had effected the condemnation was apparently
indicated by the former's exclamation in the scene soon perforce to be
touched upon.

Chapter 23

Of a series of incidents within a brief term rapidly following each
other, the adequate narration may take up a term less brief, especially
if explanation or comment here and there seem requisite to the better
understanding of such incidents. Between the entrance into the cabin of
him who never left it alive, and him who when he did leave it left it as
one condemned to die; between this and the closeted interview just
given, less than an hour and a half had elapsed. It was an interval long
enough however to awaken speculations among no few of the ship's company
as to what it was that could be detaining in the cabin the
Master-at-arms and the sailor; for a rumor that both of them had been
seen to enter it and neither of them had been seen to emerge, this rumor
had got abroad upon the gun decks and in the tops; the people of a great
war-ship being in one respect like villagers taking microscopic note of
every outward movement or non-movement going on. When therefore in
weather not at all tempestuous all hands were called in the second
dog-watch, a summons under such circumstances not usual in those hours,
the crew were not wholly unprepared for some announcement extraordinary,
one having connection too with the continued absence of the 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 the white spar-deck wherever not blotted
by the clear-cut shadows horizontally thrown of fixtures and moving men.
On either side of the quarter-deck, the marine guard under arms was
drawn up; and Captain Vere standing in his place surrounded by all the
ward-room officers, addressed his men. In so doing his manner showed
neither more nor less than that properly pertaining to his supreme
position aboard his own ship. In clear terms and concise he told them
what had taken place in the cabin; that the Master-at-arms was dead;
that he who had killed him had been already tried by a summary court and
condemned to death; and that the execution would take place in the early
morning watch. The word mutiny was not named in what he said. He
refrained too from making the occasion an opportunity for any preachment
as to the maintenance of discipline, thinking perhaps that under
existing circumstances in the navy the consequence of violating
discipline should be made to speak for itself.

Their Captain's announcement was listened to by the throng of standing
sailors in a dumbness like that of a seated congregation of believers in
hell listening to the clergyman's announcement of his Calvinistic text.

At the close, however, a confused murmur went up. It began to wax. All
but instantly, then, at a sign, it was pierced and suppressed by shrill
whistles of the Boatswain and his Mates piping down one watch.

To be prepared for burial Claggart's body was delivered to certain
petty-officers of his mess. And here, not to clog the sequel with
lateral matters, it may be added that at a suitable hour, the
Master-at-arms was committed to the sea with every funeral honor
properly belonging to his naval grade.

In this proceeding as in every public one growing out of 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, without begetting undesirable speculations in the ship's company,
sailors, and more particularly men-of--war's-men, being of all men the
greatest sticklers for usage. For similar cause, all communication
between Captain Vere and the condemned one ended with the closeted
interview already given, the latter being now surrendered to the
ordinary routine preliminary to the end. This transfer under guard from
the Captain's quarters was effected without unusual precautions---at
least no visible ones. If possible, not to let the men so much as
surmise that their officers anticipate aught amiss from them is the
tacit rule in a military ship. And the more that some sort of trouble
should really be apprehended the more do the officers keep that
apprehension to themselves; tho' not the less unostentatious vigilance
may be augmented. In the present instance the sentry placed over the
prisoner had strict orders to let no one have communication with him but
the Chaplain. And certain unobtrusive measures were taken absolutely to
insure this point.

Chapter 24

In a seventy-four of the old order the deck known as the upper gun deck
was the one covered over by the spar-deck which last though not without
its armament was for the most part exposed to the weather. In general it
was at all hours free from hammocks; those of the crew swinging on the
lower gun deck, and berth-deck, the latter being not only a dormitory
but also the place for the stowing of the sailors' bags, and on both
sides lined with the large chests or movable pantries of the many messes
of the men.

On the starboard side of the Indomitable's upper gun deck, behold Billy
Budd under sentry, lying prone in irons, in one of the bays formed by
the regular spacing of the guns comprising the batteries on either side.
All these pieces were of the heavier calibre of that period. Mounted on
lumbering wooden carriages they were hampered with cumbersome harness of
breechen and strong side-tackles for running them out. Guns and
carriages, together with the long rammers and shorter lintstocks lodged
in loops overhead---all these, as customary, were painted black; and the
heavy hempen breechens, tarred to the same tint, wore the like livery of
the undertakers. In contrast with the funereal hue of these surroundings
the prone sailor's exterior apparel, white jumper and white duck
trousers, each more or less soiled, dimly glimmered in the obscure light
of the bay like a patch of discolored snow in early April lingering at
some upland cave's black mouth. In effect he is already in his shroud or
the garments that shall serve him in lieu of one. Over him, but scarce
illuminating him, two battle-lanterns swing from two massive beams of
the deck above. Fed with the oil supplied by the war-contractors (whose
gains, honest or otherwise, are in every land an anticipated portion of
the harvest of death), with flickering splashes of dirty yellow light
they pollute the pale moonshine all but ineffectually struggling in
obstructed flecks thro' the open ports from which the tompioned cannon
protrude. Other lanterns at intervals serve but to bring out somewhat
the obscurer bays which, like small confessionals or side-chapels in a
cathedral, branch from the long dim-vistaed broad aisle 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 could have shown. It would have
taken days of sequestration from the winds and the sun to have brought
about the effacement of that. But the skeleton in the cheekbone at the
point of its angle was just beginning delicately to be defined under the
warm-tinted skin. In fervid hearts self-contained, some brief
experiences devour our human tissue as secret fire in a ship's hold
consumes cotton in the bale.

But now lying between the two guns, as nipped in the vice of fate,
Billy's agony, mainly proceeding from a generous young heart's virgin
experience of the diabolical incarnate and effective in some men--the
tension of that agony was over now. It survived not the something
healing in the closeted interview with Captain Vere. Without movement,
he lay as in a trance. That adolescent expression previously noted as
his, taking on something akin to the look of a slumbering child in the
cradle when the warm hearth-glow of the still chamber at night plays on
the dimples that at whiles mysteriously form in the cheek, silently
coming and going there. For now and then in the gyved one's trance a
serene happy light born of some wandering reminiscence or dream would
diffuse itself over his 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 presence, attentively regarded him for
a space, then slipping aside, withdrew for the time, peradventure
feeling that even he the minister of Christ, tho' receiving his stipend
from Mars, had no consolation to proffer which could result in a peace
transcending that which he beheld. But in the small hours he came again.
And the prisoner, now awake to his surroundings, noticed his approach,
and civilly, all but cheerfully, welcomed him. But it was to little
purpose that in the interview following the good man sought to bring
Billy Budd to some godly understanding that he must die, and at dawn.
True, Billy himself freely referred to his death as a thing close at
hand; but it was something in the way that children will refer to death
in general, who yet among their other sports will play a funeral with
hearse and mourners.

Not that like children Billy was incapable of conceiving what death
really is. No, but he was wholly without irrational fear of it, a fear
more prevalent in highly civilized communities than those so-called
barbarous ones which in all respects stand nearer to unadulterate
Nature. And, as elsewhere said, a barbarian Billy radically was; as much
so, for all the costume, as his countrymen the British captives, living
trophies, made to march in the Roman triumph of Germanicus. Quite as
much so as those later barbarians, young men probably, and picked
specimens among the earlier British converts to Christianity, at least
nominally such, and taken to Rome (as to-day converts from lesser isles
of the sea may be taken to London), of whom the Pope of that time,
admiring the strangeness of their personal beauty so unlike the Italian
stamp, their clear ruddy complexion and curled flaxen locks, exclaimed,
"Angles" (meaning English the modern derivative) "Angles do you call
them? And is it because they look so like angels?" Had it been later in
time one would think that the Pope had in mind Fra Angelico's seraphs
some of whom, plucking apples in gardens of the Hesperides, have the
faint rose-bud complexion of the more beautiful English girls.

If in vain the good Chaplain sought to impress the young barbarian with
ideas of death akin to those conveyed in the skull, dial, and
cross-bones on old tombstones; equally futile to all appearance were his
efforts to bring home to him the thought of salvation and a Saviour.
Billy listened, but less out of awe or reverence perhaps than from a
certain natural politeness; doubtless at bottom regarding all that in
much the same way that most mariners of his class take any discourse
abstract or out of the common tone of the work-a-day world. And this
sailor-way of taking clerical discourse is not wholly unlike the way in
which the pioneer of Christianity full of transcendent miracles was
received long ago on tropic isles by any superior savage so called--a
Tahitian say of Captain Cook's time or shortly after that time. Out of
natural courtesy he received, but did not appropriate. It was like a
gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do
not close.

But the Indomitable's Chaplain was a discreet man possessing the good
sense of a good heart. So he insisted not in his vocation here. At the
instance of Captain Vere, a lieutenant had apprised him of pretty much
everything as to Billy; and since he felt that innocence was even a
better thing than religion wherewith to go to Judgement, he reluctantly
withdrew; but in his emotion not without first performing an act strange
enough in an Englishman, and under the circumstances yet more so in any
regular priest. Stooping over, he kissed on the fair cheek his
fellow-man, a felon in martial law, one who though on the confines of
death he felt he could never convert to a dogma; nor for all that did he
fear for his future.

Marvel not that having been made acquainted with the young sailor's
essential innocence (an irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress)
the worthy man lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to
martial discipline. So to do would not only have been as idle as
invoking the desert, but would also have been an audacious transgression
of the bounds of his function, one as exactly prescribed to him by
military law as that of the boatswain or any other naval officer.
Bluntly put, a chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving
in the host of the God of War--Mars. As such, he is as incongruous as a
musket would be on the altar at Christmas. Why then is he there? Because
he indirectly subserves the purpose attested by the cannon; because too
he lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which
practically is the abrogation of everything but brute Force.

Chapter 25

The night, so luminous on the spar-deck, but otherwise on the cavernous
ones below, levels so like the tiered galleries in a coal-mine--the
luminous night passed away. But, like the prophet in the chariot
disappearing in heaven and dropping his mantle to Elisha, the
withdrawing night transferred its pale robe to the breaking day. A meek
shy light appeared in the East, where stretched a diaphanous fleece of
white furrowed vapor. That light slowly waxed. Suddenly eight bells was
struck aft, responded to by one louder metallic stroke from forward. It
was four o'clock in the morning. Instantly the silver whistles were
heard summoning all hands to witness punishment. Up through the great
hatchways rimmed with racks of heavy shot, the watch below came pouring,
overspreading with the watch already on deck the space between the
main-mast and fore-mast including that occupied by the capacious launch
and the black booms tiered on either side of it, boat and booms making a
summit of observation for the powder--boys and younger tars. A different
group comprising one watch of topmen leaned over the rail of that
sea-balcony, no small one in a seventy-four, looking down on the crowd
below. Man or boy, none spake but in whisper, and few spake at all.
Captain Vere--as before, the central figure among the assembled
commissioned officers--stood nigh the break of the poop-deck facing
forward. Just below him on the quarter-deck the marines in full
equipment were drawn up much as at the scene of the promulgated

At sea in the old time, the execution by halter of a military sailor was
generally from the fore-yard. In the present instance, for special
reasons the main-yard was assigned. Under an arm of that lee-yard the
prisoner was presently brought up, the Chaplain attending him. It was
noted at the time and remarked upon afterwards, that in this final scene
the good man evinced little or nothing of the perfunctory. Brief speech
indeed he had with the condemned one, but the genuine Gospel was less on
his tongue than in his aspect and manner towards him. The final
preparations personal to the latter being speedily brought to an end by
two boatswain's mates, the consummation impended. Billy stood facing
aft. At the penultimate moment, his words, his only ones, words wholly
unobstructed in the utterance were these--"God bless Captain Vere!"
Syllables so unanticipated coming from one with the ignominious hemp
about his neck---a conventional felon's benediction directed aft towards
the quarters of honor; syllables too delivered in the clear melody of a
singing-bird on the point of launching from the twig, had a phenomenal
effect, not unenhanced by the rare personal beauty of the young sailor
spiritualized now thro' late experiences so poignantly profound.

Without volition as it were, as if indeed the ship's populace were but
the vehicles of some vocal current electric, with one voice from alow
and aloft came a resonant sympathetic echo--"God bless Captain Vere!"
And yet at that instant Billy alone must have been in their hearts, even
as he was in their eyes.

At the pronounced words and the spontaneous echo that voluminously
rebounded them, Captain Vere, either thro' stoic self-control or a sort
of momentary paralysis induced by emotional shock, stood erectly rigid
as a musket in the ship-armorer's rack.

The hull deliberately recovering from the periodic roll to leeward was
just regaining an even keel, when the last signal, a preconcerted dumb
one, was given. At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece
hanging low in the East, was shot thro' with a soft glory as of the
fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously
therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended;
and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.

In the pinioned figure, arrived at the yard-end, to the wonder of all no
motion was apparent, none save that created by the ship's motion, in
moderate weather so majestic in a great ship ponderously cannoned.

Chapter 26

When some days afterward in reference to the singularity just mentioned,
the Purser, a rather ruddy rotund person more accurate as an accountant
than profound as a philosopher, said at mess to the Surgeon, "What
testimony to the force lodged in will-power," the latter--saturnine,
spare and tall, one in whom a discreet causticity went along with a
manner less genial than polite, replied, "Your pardon, Mr. Purser. In a
hanging scientifically conducted--and under special orders I myself
directed how Budd's was to be effected--any movement following the
completed suspension and originating in the body suspended, such
movement indicates mechanical spasm in the muscular system. Hence the
absence of that is no more attributable to will-power as you call it
than to horse-power--begging your pardon."

"But this muscular spasm you speak of, is not that in a degree more or
less invariable in these cases?"

"Assuredly so, Mr. Purser."

"How then, my good sir, do you account for its absence in this

"Mr. Purser, it is clear that your sense of the singularity in this
matter equals not mine. You account for it by what you call will-power,
a term not yet included in the lexicon of science. For me I do not, with
my present knowledge, pretend to account for it at all. Even should we
assume the hypothesis that at the first touch of the halyards the action
of Budd's heart, intensified by extraordinary emotion at its climax,
abruptly stopt--much like a watch when in carelessly winding it up you
strain at the finish, thus snapping the chain--even under that
hypothesis, how account for the phenomenon that followed?"

"You admit then that the absence of spasmodic movement was phenomenal."

"It was phenomenal, Mr. Purser, in the sense that it was an appearance
the cause of which is not immediately to be assigned."

"But tell me, my dear Sir," pertinaciously continued the other, "was the
man's death effected by the halter, or was it a species of euthanasia?"

"Euthanasia, Mr. Purser, is something like your will-power: I doubt its
authenticity as a scientific term---begging your pardon again. It is at
once imaginative and metaphysical,--in short, Greek. But," abruptly
changing his tone, "there is a case in the sick-bay that I do not care
to leave to my assistants. Beg your pardon, but excuse me." And rising
from the mess he formally withdrew.

Chapter 27

The silence at the moment of execution and for a moment or two
continuing thereafter, a silence but emphasized by the regular wash of
the sea against the hull or the flutter of a sail caused by the
helmsman's eyes being tempted astray, this emphasized silence was
gradually disturbed by a sound not easily to be verbally rendered.
Whoever has heard the freshet-wave of a torrent suddenly swelled by
pouring showers in tropical mountains, showers not shared by the plain;
whoever has heard the first muffled murmur of its sloping advance
through precipitous woods, may form some conception of the sound now
heard. The seeming remoteness of its source was because of its murmurous
indistinctness since it came from close-by, even from the men massed on
the ship's open deck. Being inarticulate, it was dubious in significance
further than it seemed to indicate some capricious revulsion of thought
or feeling such as mobs ashore are liable to, in the present instance
possibly implying a sullen revocation on the men's part of their
involuntary echoing of Billy's benediction. But ere the murmur had time
to wax into clamour it was met by a strategic command, the more telling
that it came with abrupt unexpectedness. "Pipe down the starboard watch,
Boatswain, and see that they go."

Shrill as the shriek of the sea-hawk the whistles of the Boatswain and
his Mates pierced that ominous low sound, dissipating it; and yielding
to the mechanism of discipline, the throng was thinned by one half. For
the remainder most of them were set to temporary employments connected
with trimming the yards and so forth, business readily to be got up to
serve occasion by any officer-of-the-deck.

Now each proceeding that follows a mortal sentence pronounced at sea by
a drum-head court is characterised by promptitude not perceptibly
merging into hurry, tho' bordering that. The hammock, the one which had
been Billy's bed when alive, having already been ballasted with shot and
otherwise prepared to serve for his canvas coffin, the last offices of
the sea-undertakers, the Sail-Maker's Mates, were now speedily
completed. When everything was in readiness a second call for all hands
made necessary by the strategic movement before mentioned was sounded
and now to witness burial.

The details of this closing formality it needs not to give. But when the
tilted plank let slide its freight into the sea, a second strange human
murmur was heard, blended now with another inarticulate sound proceeding
from certain larger sea-fowl, whose attention having been attracted by
the peculiar commotion in the water resulting from the heavy sloped dive
of the shotted hammock into the sea, flew screaming to the spot. So near
the hull did they come, that the stridor or bony creak of their gaunt
double-jointed pinions was audible. As the ship under light airs passed
on, leaving the burial-spot astern, they still kept circling it low down
with the moving shadow of their outstretched wings and the croaked
requiem of their cries.

Upon sailors as superstitious as those of the age preceding ours,
men-of-war's-men too who had just beheld the prodigy of repose in the
form suspended in air and now foundering in the deeps; to such mariners
the action of the sea-fowl, tho' dictated by mere animal greed for prey,
was big with no prosaic significance. An uncertain movement began among
them, in which some encroachment was made. It was tolerated but for a
moment. For suddenly the drum beat to quarters, which familiar sound
happening at least twice every day, had upon the present occasion a
signal peremptoriness in it. True martial discipline long continued
superinduces in average man a sort of impulse of docility whose
operation at the official sound of command much resembles in its
promptitude the effect of an instinct.

The drum-beat dissolved the multitude, distributing most of them along
the batteries of the two covered gun decks. There, as wont, the guns'
crews stood by their respective cannon erect and silent. In due course
the First Officer, sword under arm and standing in his place on the
quarter-deck, formally received the successive reports of the sworded
Lieutenants commanding the sections of batteries below; the last of
which reports being made, the summed report he delivered with the
customary salute to the Commander. All this occupied time, which in the
present case, was the object of beating to quarters at an hour prior to
the customary one. That such variance from usage was authorized by an
officer like Captain Vere, a martinet as some deemed him, was evidence
of the necessity for unusual action implied in what he deemed to be
temporarily the mood of his men. "With mankind," he would say, "forms,
measured forms are everything; and that is the import couched in the
story of Orpheus with his lyre spell-binding the wild denizens of the
wood." And this he once applied to the disruption of forms going on
across the Channel and the consequences thereof.

At this unwonted muster at quarters, all proceeded as at the regular
hour. The band on the quarter-deck played a sacred air. After which the
Chaplain went thro' the customary morning service. That done, the drum
beat the retreat, and toned by music and religious rites subserving the
discipline and purpose of war, the men in their wonted orderly manner,
dispersed to the places allotted them when not at the guns.

And now it was full day. The fleece of low-hanging vapor had vanished,
licked up by the sun that late had so glorified it. And the
circumambient air in the clearness of its serenity was like smooth
marble in the polished block not yet removed from the marble-dealer's

Chapter 28

The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction can not so readily be
achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than
with fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged
edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less
finished than an architectural finial.

How it fared with the Handsome Sailor during the year of the Great
Mutiny has been faithfully given. But tho' properly the story ends with
his life, something in way of sequel will not be amiss. Three brief
chapters will suffice.

In the general re-christening under the Directory of the craft
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 Revolutionary fleet, while proclaiming the
infidel audacity of the ruling power was yet, tho' not so intended to
be, the aptest name, if one consider it, ever given to a war-ship; far
more so indeed than the Devastation, the Erebus (the Hell) and similar
names bestowed upon fighting-ships.

On the return-passage to the English fleet from the detached cruise
during which occurred the events already recorded, the Indomitable fell
in with the Atheiste. An engagement ensued; during which Captain Vere,
in the act of putting his ship alongside the enemy with a view of
throwing his boarders across her bulwarks, was hit by a musket-ball from
a port-hole of the enemy's main cabin. More than disabled he dropped to
the deck and was carried below to the same cock-pit where some of his
men already lay. The senior Lieutenant took command. Under him the enemy
was finally captured and though much crippled was by rare good fortune
successfully taken into Gibraltar, an English port not very distant from
the scene of the fight. There, Captain Vere with the rest of the wounded
was put ashore. He lingered for some days, but the end came. Unhappily
he was cut off too early for the Nile and Trafalgar. The spirit that
spite its philosophic austerity may yet have indulged in the most secret
of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fulness of fame.

Not long before death, while lying under the influence of that magical
drug which soothing the physical frame mysteriously operates on the
subtler element in man, he was heard to murmur words inexplicable to his
attendant--"Billy Budd, Billy Budd." That these were not the accents of
remorse, would seem clear from what the attendant said to the
Indomitable's senior officer of marines who, as the most reluctant to
condemn of the members of the drum-head court, too well knew, tho' here
he kept the knowledge to himself, who Billy Budd was.

Chapter 29

Some few weeks after the execution, among other matters under the head
of News from the Mediterranean, there appeared in a naval chronicle of
the time, an authorized weekly publication, an account of the affair. It
was doubtless for the most part written in good faith, tho' the medium,
partly rumor, through which the facts must have reached the writer,
served to deflect and in part falsify them. The account was as follows:--

"On the tenth of the last month a deplorable occurrence took place on
board H.M.S. Indomitable. John Claggart, the ship's Master-at-arms,
discovering that some sort of plot was incipient among an inferior
section of the ship's company, and that the ringleader was one William
Budd; he, Claggart, in the act of arraigning the man before the Captain
was vindictively stabbed to the heart by the suddenly drawn sheath-knife
of Budd.

"The deed and the implement employed, sufficiently suggest that tho'
mustered into the service under an English name the assassin was no
Englishman, but one of those aliens adopting English cognomens whom the
present extraordinary necessities of the Service have caused to be
admitted into it in considerable numbers.

"The enormity of the crime and the extreme depravity of the criminal,
appear the greater in view of the character of the victim, a middle-aged
man respectable and discreet, belonging to that official grade, the
petty-officers, upon whom, as none know better than the commissioned
gentlemen, the efficiency of His Majesty's Navy so largely depends. His
function was a responsible one, at once onerous & thankless, and his
fidelity in it the greater because of his strong patriotic impulse. In
this instance as in so many other instances in these days, the character
of this unfortunate 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 promptitude of the
punishment has proved salutary. Nothing amiss is now apprehended aboard
H.M.S. Indomitable."

The above, appearing in a publication now long ago superannuated and
forgotten, is all that hitherto has stood in human record to attest what
manner of men respectively were John Claggart and Billy Budd.

Chapter 30

Everything is for a term remarkable in navies. Any tangible object
associated with some striking incident of the service is converted into
a monument. The spar from which the Foretopman was suspended, was for
some few years kept trace of by the blue-jackets. Their knowledge
followed it from ship to dock-yard and again from dock-yard to ship,
still pursuing it even when at last reduced to a mere dock-yard boom. To
them a chip of it was as a piece of the Cross. Ignorant tho' they were
of the secret facts of the tragedy, and not thinking but that the
penalty was somehow unavoidably inflicted from the naval point of view,
for all that they instinctively felt that Billy was a sort of man as
incapable of mutiny as of wilfull murder. They recalled the fresh young
image of the Handsome Sailor, that face never deformed by a sneer or
subtler vile freak of the heart within. Their impression of him was
doubtless deepened by the fact that he was gone, and in a measure
mysteriously gone. At the time, on the gun decks of the Indomitable, the
general estimate of his nature and its unconscious simplicity eventually
found rude utterance from another foretopman, one of his own watch,
gifted, as some sailors are, with an artless poetic temperament; the
tarry hands made some lines which after circulating among the shipboard
crew for a while, finally got rudely printed at Portsmouth as a ballad.
The title given to it was the sailor's.


Good of the Chaplain to enter Lone Bay
And down on his marrow-bones here and pray
For 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-end
Like 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 too
Early 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.


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