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Away from the fleet on a mission, the Bellipotent encounters an enemy frigate, which, outsized by the Bellipotent, turns sail and flees. After some pursuit, the enemy escapes, and the Bellipotent abandons chase. As the excitement subsides on board, Claggart approaches the mainmast to obtain an interview with Captain Vere. Such a request is unusual, and Vere is taken aback by the appearance of this unfamiliar officer, who inspires a vague unease in him.
Claggart proceeds to reveal his suspicion that a mutiny conspiracy may be fomenting among a group of impressed men on the gun decks, alluding to the Nore mutiny in order to further alarm the captain . Vere, unsettled by such a report, is also disturbed by Claggart’s demeanor as he relates this information. Vere mulls over the implications of potential insubordination in his ranks, taking note of Claggart’s lack of tact in bringing up the sensitive issue of the Nore mutiny and his immodest, forward testimony.
Vere, wishing to bring things to a point, asks Claggart to identify his prime suspect. Claggart responds by naming William (Billy) Budd, a foretopman. Truly surprised by this assertion, Vere notes that Billy is so roundly liked by the crew that they call him the Handsome Sailor. Claggart explains that Billy creates an aura of friendliness so that his shipmates will defend him in a pinch, and insists that his genial demeanor masks a sinister nature. Vere, reflecting on his approval of Billy’s conduct thus far and his enthusiasm for having such a young and capable sailor, grows increasingly suspicious of Claggart’s motives.
When Vere demands that Claggart produce a piece of evidence to support his claim against Billy, Claggart responds with a series of further accusations that he claims he can prove. Vere prepares to demand such proof but thinks twice about it, deciding to be more discreet instead. Therefore, he sends a boy to bring Billy to the captain’s cabin without revealing where they are going. Meanwhile, he dismisses Claggart to a lower deck, telling him to return to the cabin when Billy arrives.
Billy arrives and sits with Claggart and Vere in the confines of the cabin. Vere directs Claggart to confront Billy with his accusation. Claggart speaks with great precision, rendering Billy speechless, stunning him completely. Vere demands that Billy speak up to defend himself, but Billy remains tongue-tied. Noticing Billy’s tendency to stutter and be mute, Vere softens his approach, telling Billy to take his time in formulating a response. These encouraging words only throw Billy further into a fury, as he wrenches his body into a contortion, still unable to reply.
Suddenly, in a moment of impulse, Billy strikes Claggart a blow to the forehead, knocking him over. Claggart lets out a brief gasp upon hitting the ground and then lies motionless. Vere, as though shocked, softly bewails this ill-fated turn, and directs Billy to help him raise Claggart off the ground. They slouch him up into a sitting position and then lay him down again. Vere dismisses Billy to a nearby stateroom and summons the ship’s surgeon to the cabin.
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