by Herman Melville

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 shipmates. 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
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
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
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.

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 tan.
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 them."
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
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.

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 'unction 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 sailor.
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
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 King's!"

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
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.
Concerning "The greatest sailor since our world began."

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 be.
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 reasons.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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
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 Camouns' 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 sea-commonalty.

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
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 further.
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 characteristic.

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!"

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 itself?
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
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 tho' among
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
from some source other than what is known as knowledge of the world-
that were hardly possible, at least for me."
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
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."
Lawyers, Experts, Clergy

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.
Pale ire, envy and despair

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.

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.

Not many days after the last incident narrated, something befell
Billy Budd that more gravelled him than aught that had previously
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
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 disappeared.
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 drowse.
"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
"O," 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.

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

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 it.
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.

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
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 import.
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.

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 escape.
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, Master-at-arms?"
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 the-"
"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 all.
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 Joseph.
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
"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."

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 torpedo-fish.
"Speak, man!" said Captain Vere to the transfixed one, struck by
his aspect even more than by Claggart's, "Speak! defend yourself."
Which appeal caused but a strange 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
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
"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!
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 event.
"But come; we must despatch," he added. "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
"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

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.

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
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
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
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 says?" 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
"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
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.

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.

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
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.

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
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.

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
A Digression

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
"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
"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, 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.

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 yard.

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.

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.

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 to
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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