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 suffocation.
Though at the time Captain Vere was quite ignorant of Billy’s liability to vocal impediment, he now immediately divined it, since vividly Billy’s aspect recalled to him that of a bright young schoolmate of his whom he had once seen struck by much the same startling impotence in the act of eagerly rising in the class to be foremost in response to a testing question put to it by the master. Going close up to the young sailor, and laying a soothing hand on his shoulder, he said, “There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time, take your time.” Contrary to the effect intended, these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touching Billy’s heart to the quick, prompted yet more violent efforts at utterance — efforts soon ending for the time in confirming the paralysis, and bringing to his face an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold. The next instant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck. Whether intentionally or but owing to the young athlete’s superior height, the blow had taken effect fully upon the forehead, so shapely and intellectual-looking a feature in the Master-at — arms; so that the body fell over lengthwise, like a heavy plank tilted from erectness. A gasp or two, and he lay motionless.
“Fated boy,” breathed Captain Vere in tone so low as to be almost a whisper, “what have you done! But here, help me.”
The twain raised the felled one from the loins up into a sitting position. The spare form flexibly acquiesced, but inertly. It was like handling a dead snake. They lowered it back. Regaining erectness Captain Vere with one hand covering his face stood to all appearance as impassive as the object at his feet. Was he absorbed in taking in all the bearings of the event and what was best not only now at once to be done, but also in the sequel? Slowly he uncovered his face; and the effect was as if the moon emerging from eclipse should reappear with quite another aspect than that which had gone into hiding. The father in him, manifested towards Billy thus far in the scene, was replaced by the military disciplinarian. In his official tone he bade the Foretopman retire to a state-room aft (pointing it out), and there remain till thence summoned. This order Billy in silence mechanically obeyed. Then going to the cabin-door where it opened on the quarter-deck, Captain Vere said to the sentry without, “Tell somebody to send Albert here.” When the lad appeared his master so contrived it that he should not catch sight of the prone one. “Albert,” he said to him, “tell the Surgeon I wish to see him. You need not come back till called.”
When the Surgeon entered — a self-poised character of that grave sense and experience that hardly anything could take him aback — Captain Vere advanced to meet him, thus unconsciously intercepting his view of Claggart, and interrupting the other’s wonted ceremonious salutation, said, “Nay, tell me how it is with yonder man,” directing his attention to the prostrate one.
The Surgeon looked, and for all his self-command, somewhat started at the abrupt revelation. On Claggart’s always pallid complexion, thick black blood was now oozing from nostril and ear. To the gazer’s professional eye it was unmistakably no living man that he saw.
“Is it so then?” said Captain Vere intently watching him. “I thought it. But verify it.” Whereupon the customary tests confirmed the Surgeon’s first glance, who now looking up in unfeigned concern, cast a look of intense inquisitiveness upon his superior. But Captain Vere, with one hand to his brow, was standing motionless. Suddenly, catching the Surgeon’s arm convulsively, he exclaimed, pointing down to the body —“It is the divine judgement on Ananias! Look!”
Disturbed by the excited manner he had never before observed in the Indomitable’s Captain, and as yet wholly ignorant of the affair, the prudent Surgeon nevertheless held his peace, only again looking an earnest interrogation as to what it was that had resulted in such a tragedy.
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 comply.
“Go now,” said Captain Vere with something of his wonted manner —“Go now. I shall presently call a drum-head court. Tell the lieutenants what has happened, and tell Mr. Mordant,” meaning the Captain of Marines, “and charge them to keep the matter to themselves.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11