A bell strikes ten and a "gigantic black" in chains, Atufal, approaches Cereno, Delano and Babo. Cereno asks Atufal if he will ask his pardon; Atufal says nothing. After Cereno has dismissed Atufal, he answers Delano's questions about the scene, saying that Atufal gave Cereno cause for offence and that as punishment Atufal is kept in chains and made to stand before Cereno every other hour to ask pardon. Delano finds Cereno, who appears otherwise relaxed to a fault in his treatment of the slaves, unreasonable in his treatment of the noble Atufal.
Delano begins to see Cereno as a suspicious fellow. He notices a mysterious Spaniard making secret signs to the captain, which rouses Delano's attention. His negative impression is much increased when Cereno suddenly goes off into a corner with Babo to whisper behind Delano's back. The American is much offended by this breach of courtesy and wonders if the affront is intentional. As Cereno and Babo conference, Delano even begins to entertain the idea that Cereno is an imposter, not a true sea captain at all. Moreover, Cereno returns to Delano only to ask him delicate and prying questions about the Bachelor's Delight, the amount of coin he has on board, the number of men he has under his command, and the state of his arsenal. When Cereno again returns to secret counsel with Babo, Delano begins to feel quite terrified of the Spaniard.
In order to ease his mind, Delano takes a turn about the deck. He notices the same Spaniard he saw appearing to signal Cereno now signaling him. Delano's feeling of foreboding, though now and again dispelled by his unsuspicious nature, increases as he recalls Cereno's tale. It had seemed almost as though Cereno was making his tale of misfortune up as he went along, covering himself by feigning illness. Combined with the constant clatter of the Ashantis polishing their hatchets, Delano begins to feel that Cereno has designs on the Bachelor's Delight.
As Delano walks the decks he notices an old Spanish sailor, his hands stained with tar, acting strangely sheepish in his presence. He passes from this old salt to the part of the deck mostly taken up by African women and their babies. Delano admires them, seeing a combination of toughness and tenderness. As he walks the deck he then sees, hidden in the chains and rigging, a Spanish sailor who seems to signal to him. These signals continue when an aged sailor, in the midst of making an extremely complex knot, hands it to Delano and says to him in quick English, "Cut it, quick." An "elderly negro" gently intervenes, explaining that the man is mad, and taking the knot from Delano, throws it overboard.
The sight of his whaleboat, the Rover, returning with provisions from the Bachelor's Delight, rejuvenates Delano. Cereno and Babo finally return from their long conference. He awaits the boat's arrival, pacing the deck and pondering the strangeness of his visit, until at last the Rover pulls alongside the San Dominick. The slaves greet the boat's casks raucously, even as their grey-haired elders try to restrain them. Delano, caught in the excitement, makes a gesture as though to strike a slave. The company freezes; a signal is given; the hatchet polishers rise; Don Benito screams. As suddenly as the moment began, it ends with the gentle reassurances of the grey-haired watchers, and the company returns to the provisions at hand.
Cereno passes around the newly arrived food, cider, and water equally between whites and blacks; though Delano would have saved the delicacies for the whites alone, he inwardly approves of Cereno's generosity. The whaleboat also unpacks canvas and other necessities for refitting the San Dominick, and the crew sets about repairing the ship. Meanwhile, Delano's questions regarding the veracity of Cereno's story return. He asks Cereno how it could have been possible, however bad the squalls and calms he suffered may have been, to take two-thirds of a year to get from Buenos Aires to Chile, a journey that generally takes only a few weeks. Cereno begins coughing, as though unnerved, and Babo tells Delano that it is time for his master's daily shave, would he care to continue the conversation in Cereno's cabin?
Delano follows Cereno and Babo into the cabin, which is furnished with Catholic paraphernalia and grotesque furniture, and Cereno settles in for his shave. Babo chooses an especially sharp razor and bibs Cereno with the Spanish flag. This effrontery to the Spanish colors startles Delano somewhat, but he figures in his usual racist way that Babo is merely attracted to the bright colors. Cereno, meanwhile, behaves nervously while under Babo's razor. When Delano resumes his uncomfortable line of questioning, Babo's razor slips, drawing blood. The sight of the blood horrifies Cereno, and it is quite a while before he can resume his excuses to Delano. Babo then barbers his master. Delano leaves the cabin slightly before Cereno and Babo, and Babo follows him out a moment later holding his bleeding cheek, saying that Cereno cut him because his razor slipped during the shave. Can it be possible, Delano thinks, that Cereno, who appears so docile before Babo, is such a tyrant behind closed doors? He soon clears his mind of these apprehensions.
Escorted by a handsome "mulatto," Francesco, Delano and Cereno then sit down together to dine and settle on the price of sails, spars, provisions and riggings that the Bachelor's Delight is giving to the San Dominick. Delano tells Cereno that he has heard of "mulattos" being ill-behaved. Cereno assures Delano that Francesco is "a good man." Delano wishes the slaves to leave the dining area while Cereno and he complete their transaction; Cereno refuses to dismiss them. Delano is perturbed at this refusal, and Cereno passes into distraught quiet. Feeling a slight breeze, Delano excuses himself from the table.
The tableaux vivants continue as Melville unfolds the day's events with a torpid attentiveness to the slow passage of time, his very prose reflecting the grayness of the waves and the skies. Melville records every gesture, every thought, every oscillation from foreboding to relief that Captain Delano experiences.
One of Babo's masterpieces is the play between Atufal and Cereno. Delano thinks it disgraceful that Cereno, whom he witnessed tolerating such unacceptable behavior as blacks striking whites, should be so unforgiving of the slight, unnamed affront of the kingly Atufal. In Delano's naive imagination the noble savage is highly esteemed, and in Atufal Babo has staged the noble savage for Delano's benefit. Meanwhile, the hatchets ring like "cymbals"-bringing to mind the word "symbols"-and Delano struggles to interpret his sense that something is dreadfully wrong.
Whenever Delano gains a sense that appearance and reality are at odds, his first instinct is to blame Cereno. The Spanish captain is too full of contradictions for the honest, foolish Delano to trust him completely. Cereno is at once assiduously aware of decorum and protocol yet liable to enormous lapses, as when he ignores Delano to confer privately with Babo; Cereno appears utterly impotent when it comes to enforcing order on his ship, yet in certain instances, such as his treatment of Atufal or his apparent physical abuse of Babo following the shaving scene, he appears to be a cruel disciplinarian. Moreover, there are contradictions and inconsistencies in Cereno's story of his misfortunes, and whenever Delano tries to address these, Cereno is evasive. Delano's only response to contradiction (which he loathes) is to imagine-from time to time reassuring himself and then rekindling his suspicion-that Cereno is an imposter, a pirate out to steal the Bachelor's Delight. After all, Cereno must be in charge somehow. He is white and he is wearing the captain's hat.
Several Spanish sailors aboard the San Dominick attempt to cure Delano of his ignorance, only to stir the American's suspicion of them. One signals to Cereno with hidden, slight gestures, which Delano interprets as a plot against him. Another brings Delano a makeshift version of the Gordian knot, begging Delano to "cut it, quick." Alexander the Great's famous solution to the Gordian knot, however, is beyond the American. Delano cannot see the knot he is in, let alone cut it; his only response to the danger he feels is to rely upon the pseudo-gothic nautical mythology of imposter captains and pirate traps. Even as he ponders the possibility of a plot against him and the Bachelor's Delight, Delano is distracted and reassured by the picture of African women caring for their babies. The sight stimulates Delano's love for honesty and he thinks, "There's naked nature, now; pure tenderness and love." Of course, as we find out later, the slave women would as soon destroy Delano as look at him. Though they may be nude, though they may be tender to their children, their nature is anything but naked.
Babo's shaving scene deserves special mention as perhaps the greatest of his staged performances for Delano. The setting, the lighting, everything is perfect. Cereno's cabin is filled with eerie Catholic imagery, and his furniture suggests an Inquisition torture chamber: an ideal stage for Babo's delicate psychological torment. It is almost as though Babo delights in own audacity as he comes as near as possible to the literal truth of the situation-holding the razor to Cereno's throat, even drawing a little blood-without letting the illusion slip. Delano is a perfect stooge in the scene. His brief moment of panic when he realizes that Babo is using the Spanish flag for his captain's shaving bib followed by the reassuring assessment that Babo must be using the flag simply because "the colors [are] gay!" perfectly captures, in one vibrant triangle, Babo's masterful manipulation of images, Cereno's existential horror at the absurdity of his conundrum, and Delano's pure and complete cluelessness.
The dinner scene is another beautifully staged tableaux that introduces the interesting character of Francesco, Don Aranda's "mulatto" porter. Delano finds Francesco's combination of a European bone structure and a brown hue fascinating, and he discourses at some length with Cereno, all the while within earshot of both Francesco and Babo, about the meaning of Francesco's hybridity. In Delano's amateur ethnology (popular in Melville's day), Francesco's white blood must affect his disposition; the introduction of European blood must quell the natural savage. Delano even suggests that Babo may be jealous of Francesco's white blood. Of course, as it turns out, Babo has been completely in charge of Francesco all along, and Francesco, for his part, was one of the eagerest mutineers on the San Dominick. Delano's racial theory, like all of his other attempts to read the world, proves feeble.
On the whole, "Benito Cereno" unfolds like the opposite of a detective story: in this tale, the audience knows the truth and interprets the clues before the supposed "detective" can. The tale becomes an exercise in dramatic irony; Delano's well-intentioned optimism speeds him toward his own demise, with the Yankee Captain himself at the helm.