Ordering the sentry to admit no one, Vere directs Claggart to tell Billy face to face the story he had related to the captain, alleging Billy’s part in a conspiracy. Claggart confronts Billy with a hypnotic stare and repeats his charge. Billy is speechless. When Vere orders him to speak in his own defense, Billy remains tongue-tied. Then Vere, sensing Billy’s impediment, places his hand on the sailor’s shoulder and quietly tells him to take his time.
Alter another instant’s silence, Billy’s right arm lashes out, striking Claggart on the forehead. The master-at-arms falls to the deck, dead. With a whispered exclamation of shock and compassion, Vere tries with Billy’s help to revive Claggart, but it is “like handling a dead snake.”
Soon regaining his official composure, Vere orders Billy to wait in a rear stateroom. He summons the ship’s surgeon, who with one glance knows he is viewing a corpse, and then confirms Claggart’s death with the usual tests. The captain emotionally exclaims that Claggart is an Ananias, “struck dead by an angel of God” who must hang for his deed.
The captain and the surgeon put Claggart’s body in the stateroom opposite Billy. Vere informs the surgeon that he will quickly call a drumhead court and asks him to tell the ship’s officers and Mr. Mordant, captain of the marines, but to request them to keep silent about what has happened.
Manipulating his characters with a sure hand skilled at creating suspense, Melville packs stark drama and tragedy into four fast-moving pages, which contain more action than the longest chapter in the story. Retribution destroys the demonic Claggart, whose violet eyes change to purple as he fixes Billy with a reptilian gaze. Regrettably, the unintentional agent of vengeance is his intended victim, the unwary sailor.
Overcoming his immediate horror and personal sympathies, the captain resumes his professional demeanor and skillfully manages affairs in the strict tradition of the King’s Navy. Unlike the brooding buildup of the opening chapters, the action of Chapter 19, like an episode from a stage play, is up front where all can see. By changing tack from description to fast action, Melville arouses the reader’s interest as to what will happen next.
stateroom private compartment, or quarters.
the divine judgment on Ananias In the New Testament, Peter confronts Ananias for retaining money that belongs to the church. Ananias immediately falls down dead (Acts 5:1–5).
drumhead court an impromptu court-martial, so named because during wartime, military justice was a hurried affair held in the field of battle. The flat side of a drum served in place of a table.