While on a mission that carries the Bellipotent far from the fleet, she catches sight of an enemy frigate. The Bellipotent gives chase, but the enemy ship escapes after a long hunt.
After the escape, Claggart approaches Captain Vere and tells him that a sailor has been making trouble on the ship, organizing and riling up those men who were impressed into service. Captain Vere distrusts something about Claggart, and his suspicion grows when Claggart says that the troublemaker is Billy Budd. Vere can hardly believe it. He knows of Budd: he complimented Radcliffe on his choice of a man who "in the nude might have posed for a statue of a young Adam before the Fall" (345). Vere was hoping to suggest Billy's promotion to captain of the mizzentop, a post which would have brought Billy more frequently under Vere's eye. Vere reminds Claggart that there is a price to be paid for false witness. Claggart, making show of being offended, tells the captain that he has proof. Vere decides to try to deal with the matter quietly, so as to find out if the charges are true; he wonders at this point not how he will deal with the allegedly mutinous Billy, but how he might deal with the lying Claggart.
Vere orders Albert, his hammock-boy (a kind of captain's personal attendant) to summon Billy discretely to the aft part of the ship. He is not to tell Billy that the final destination is Vere's cabin until the last moment.
Billy is surprised to be brought to Vere's cabin, but he is not afraid: he feels that the captain has always looked with favor on him, and thinks that perhaps he is going to be promoted. Vere orders Claggart to tell Billy what he has just told him. The captain is planning to study the faces of accuser and accused. Claggart repeats the accusation. Billy, as always when seized by powerful emotions, cannot speak. Vere at first cannot understand the silence, but watching Billy's tortured expression soon guesses the problem. He tries to soothe Billy, telling him to take his time, but the gesture is so tender it only makes Billy's stutter worse, "bringing to his face an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold" (350). Unable to speak, and in the grips of emotions that the young man cannot control, he strikes Claggart, who falls down dead. They try to help Claggart up, but his form is completely inert. Vere takes in the situation, and then orders Billy to go into an aft stateroom and remain there until summoned.
Keeping the body out of sight, Vere has Albert summon the surgeon. The surgeon comes and verifies that Claggart is dead. A distressed Vere exclaims, "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" (352). Vere orders that the body be moved to a compartment, and he announces his intention to call a drumhead court. He tells the surgeon to inform the lieutenants of what has happened, as well as the captain of the marines. These officers must keep the matter to themselves.
This confrontation decides Billy's fate. Melville's buildup pays off, as a number of important themes and ideas here reach their fulfillment.
We see that Vere is not immune to Billy's looks and innocence. Already, he was considering promoting Billy so that the boy would more often be under his gaze. And Billy's charisma and good nature make Vere reluctant to take Claggart's word, to the point that even before meeting Billy, he is already considering how to deal with Claggart's lying. Vere is also extremely good to Billy in the cabin, patiently telling the boy to take his time. For the middle-aged bachelor, Billy's beauty and innocence have a strong appeal.
Vere immediately recognizes that something is amiss. Claggart may be intelligent, but he is unable to fool the captain. Vere recognizes the performance, and his unwillingness to trust the master-at-arms is consistent with the character description given to us earlier. Note Vere's depth of compassion throughout the whole encounter: despite the looming threat of mutiny, he gives Billy the benefit of the doubt. And as Billy stutters, Vere treats him with patience and understanding.
But Vere does not make exceptions to his principles. He reaches the decision, almost immediately, that despite Billy's innocence the boy must hang. Vere, though in the position of power, is also bound by his own ideas of honor and responsibility. No exception can be made; in the turmoil of the times, Vere clings to principle and responsibility as life-preservers.
Billy's speechlessness in this dramatic scene is one of the most loaded moments of the novella. His silence dooms him. As noted earlier, Melville's later works are marked by an obsession with the inability to communicate. His own literary failures scarred him, and he feared that his work, his vision, would never make a difference. This terrible fear works its way into Billy Budd. The Handsome Sailor's fatal flaw is a small stutter that at this critical moment costs him his life. Unable to speak, Billy lashes out in frustration, like a beast, and dooms himself in the process. Interrupted communication is an important theme of the novella, and closely connected to this idea is the theme of isolation.
Claggart and Vere are both, in different ways, isolated men. Claggart's machinations are his own, and no one on board is privy to his thoughts. Even the narrator, who often feels free enough to explain the thinking and motivations of the other characters, expresses doubts about his ability to describe Claggart: "His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it" (313). Even the narrator won't go too close to Claggart. The master-at-arms is left alone to contend with his secret obsession with Billy; compounding his isolation is this lonely desire for a man whom he will never be able to have.
Vere, too, is isolated. As an erudite and sensitive man in the military, as well as a bachelor, he gives the impression of one who does not have many soul mates in the world. And at the end of the novel, the captain is burdened with the duty of seeing to Billy's execution.
The cabin scene gives us three men together in a room, but with each firmly separated from the others. Claggart is there, presenting one front while secretively plotting his next move, preparing to lie and present false evidence against Billy. Vere is there, and he too is presenting a front: while allowing Claggart to think that he is only investigating the matter, he is actually waiting for Billy's innocence to make itself obvious. And finally Billy, brought in without a clue as to what's going on, hears the accusations but cannot make his thoughts known; he lacks even the speech necessary to defend himself.
The allegorical elements of Billy Budd are also in full affect. There is a tradition of looking at Billy Budd as a Christ story, with Vere as the Father. He is the bachelor with no children of his own, trying to help the boy who has never known his real father. Also, note that Billy's expression as he is trying to speak is "as a crucifixion to behold" (350). However, the Christ reading is not some magic key that unlocks the whole novella, however strong the temptations to use it that way may be. The reading is only one strand of a complex work. More will be said about the Christ reading later.
There is a fated nature to what happens. Though Billy makes choices, and conducts himself in a way that saves Vere and preserves the Bellipotent's ability to serve the King, he has no choice but to die. He kills Claggart in a moment where he has lost control. He certainly has done nothing to deserve Claggart's hatred. The theme of fate is worked through the whole novella. Vere brings it up: immediately after Claggart falls dead, Vere addresses Billy as "Fated boy" (350). Billy is lost, crushed between the forces of Claggart's hatred, Vere's sense of duty, and the threat posed by recent mutinies during a time of impending war. Billy loses his life because of his situation, rather than because of any particular thing that he has done.
Without pushing the Christ reading, Billy remains a symbol of goodness and innocence. He is a kind of natural, perfected man, noticed by Vere as a man like Adam before the Fall. He possesses natural nobility, male beauty, and youthful innocence. But these gifts do not protect him from the world, where a creature can be hated not despite his beauty and goodness, but because of them.
Melville continues to develop the symbolism of Claggart as the devil. He describes his corpse with serpent imagery: "The spare form flexibly acquiesced, but inertly. It was like handling a dead snake" (350). Claggart is at once a real character and a metaphor for the nature of evil. Part of what makes him frightening is the mystery surrounding him. Although his motivations are hinted at, the true root of his malevolence can never be satisfactorily explained away. Claggart's paradox is that he wanted both to have and to destroy Billy. Though it costs Claggart his life, he arguably has gotten what he wanted. Billy has touched him, and Billy will die. Even dead, Claggart is frightening: silent, serpent-like, taking his secrets with him, and having successfully caused the destruction of a creature who has never done him wrong.