Purser, it is clear that your sense of the singularity in this matter equals not mine.
You account for it by what you call will-power, a term not yet included in the lexicon of science.
For me I do not, with my present knowledge, pretend to account for it at all.
Even should we assume the hypothesis that at the first touch of the halyards the action of Budd’s heart, intensified by extraordinary emotion at its climax, abruptly stopt–much like a watch when in carelessly winding it up you strain at the finish, thus snapping the chain–even under that hypothesis, how account for the phenomenon that followed?” “You admit then that the absence of spasmodic movement was phenomenal.” “It was phenomenal, Mr.
Purser, in the sense that it was an appearance the cause of which is not immediately to be assigned.” “But tell me, my dear Sir,” pertinaciously continued the other, “was the man’s death effected by the halter, or was it a species of euthanasia?” “Euthanasia, Mr.
Purser, is something like your will-power: I doubt its authenticity as a scientific term– begging your pardon again.
It is at once imaginative and metaphysical,–in short, Greek.
But,” abruptly changing his tone, “there is a case in the sick-bay that I do not care to leave to my assistants.
Beg your pardon, but excuse me.” And rising from the mess he formally withdrew. Chapter 27 The silence at the moment of execution and for a moment or two continuing thereafter, a silence but emphasized by the regular wash of the sea against the hull or the flutter of a sail caused by the helmsman’s eyes being tempted astray, this emphasized silence was gradually disturbed by a sound not easily to be verbally rendered.
Whoever has heard the freshet-wave of a torrent suddenly swelled by pouring showers in tropical mountains, showers not shared by the plain; whoever has heard the first muffled murmur of its sloping advance through precipitous woods, may form some conception of the sound now heard.
The seeming remoteness of its source was because of its murmurous indistinctness since it came from close-by, even from the men massed on the ship’s open deck.
Being inarticulate, it was dubious in significance further than it seemed to indicate some capricious revulsion of thought or feeling such as mobs ashore are liable to, in the present instance possibly implying a sullen revocation on the men’s part of their involuntary echoing of Billy’s benediction.
But ere the murmur had time to wax into clamour it was met by a strategic command, the more telling that it came with abrupt unexpectedness. “Pipe down the starboard watch, Boatswain, and see that they go.” Shrill as the shriek of the sea-hawk the whistles of the Boatswain and his Mates pierced that ominous low sound, dissipating it; and yielding to the mechanism of discipline, the throng was thinned by one half.
For the remainder most of them were set to temporary employments connected with trimming the yards and so forth, business readily to be got up to serve occasion by any officer-of-the-deck. Now each proceeding that follows a mortal sentence pronounced at sea by a drum-head court is characterised by promptitude not perceptibly merging into hurry, tho’ bordering that.
The hammock, the one which had been Billy’s bed when alive, having already been ballasted with shot and otherwise prepared to serve for his canvas coffin, the last offices of the sea-undertakers, the Sail-Maker’s Mates, were now speedily completed.
When everything was in readiness a second call for all hands made necessary by the strategic movement before mentioned was sounded and now to witness burial. The details of this closing formality it needs not to give.
But when the tilted plank let slide its freight into the sea, a second strange human murmur was heard, blended now with another inarticulate sound proceeding from certain larger sea-fowl, whose attention having been attracted by the peculiar commotion in the water resulting from the heavy sloped dive of the shotted hammock into the sea, flew screaming to the spot.
So near the hull did they come, that the stridor or bony creak of their gaunt double-jointed pinions was audible.
As the ship under light airs passed on, leaving the burial-spot astern, they still kept circling it low down with the moving shadow of their outstretched wings and the croaked requiem of their cries. Upon sailors as superstitious as those of the age preceding ours, men-of-war’s-men too who had just beheld the prodigy of repose in the form suspended in air and now foundering in the deeps; to such mariners the action of the sea-fowl, tho’ dictated by mere animal greed for prey, was big with no prosaic significance.
An uncertain movement began among them, in which some encroachment was made.
It was tolerated but for a moment.
For suddenly the drum beat to quarters, which familiar sound happening at least twice every day, had upon the present occasion a signal peremptoriness in it.
True martial discipline long continued superinduces in average man a sort of impulse of docility whose operation at the official sound of command much resembles in its promptitude the effect of an instinct. The drum-beat dissolved the multitude, distributing most of them along the batteries of the two covered gun decks.
There, as wont, the guns’ crews stood by their respective cannon erect and silent.
In due course the First Officer, sword under arm and standing in his place on the quarter-deck, formally received the successive reports of the sworded Lieutenants commanding the sections of batteries below; the last of which reports being made, the summed report he delivered with the customary salute to the Commander.
All this occupied time, which in the present case, was the object of beating to quarters at an hour prior to the customary one.
That such variance from usage was authorized by an officer like Captain Vere, a martinet as some deemed him, was evidence of the necessity for unusual action implied in what he deemed to be temporarily the mood of his men. “With mankind,” he would say, “forms, measured forms Chapter 28 The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction can not so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact.
Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial. How it fared with the Handsome Sailor during the year of the Great Mutiny has been faithfully given.
But tho’ properly the story ends with his life, something in way of sequel will not be amiss.
Three brief chapters will suffice. In the general re-christening under the Directory of the craft originally forming the navy of the French monarchy, the St.
Louis line-of-battle ship was named the Atheiste.
Such a name, like some other substituted ones in the Revolutionary fleet, while proclaiming the infidel audacity of the ruling power was yet, tho’ not so intended to be, the aptest name, if one consider it, ever given to a war-ship; far more so indeed than the Devastation, the Erebus (the Hell) and similar names bestowed upon fighting-ships. On the return-passage to the English fleet from the detached cruise during which occurred the events already recorded, the Indomitable fell in with the Atheiste.
An engagement ensued; during which Captain Vere, in the act of putting his ship alongside the enemy with a view of throwing his boarders across her bulwarks, was hit by a musket-ball from a port-hole of the enemy’s main cabin.
More than disabled he dropped to the deck and was carried below to the same cock-pit where some of his men already lay.
The senior Lieutenant took command.
Under him the enemy was finally captured and though much crippled was by rare good fortune successfully taken into Gibraltar, an English port not very distant from the scene of the fight.
There, Captain Vere with the rest of the wounded was put ashore.
He lingered for some days, but the end came.
Unhappily he was cut off too early for the Nile and Trafalgar.
The spirit that spite its philosophic austerity may yet have indulged in the most secret of all passions, ambition, never attained to the fulness of fame. Not long before death, while lying under the influence of that magical drug which soothing the physical frame mysteriously operates on the subtler element in man, he was heard to murmur words inexplicable to his attendant–“Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” That these were not the accents of remorse, would seem clear from what the attendant said to the Indomitable’s senior officer of marines who, as the most reluctant to condemn of the members of the drum-head court, too well knew, tho’ here he kept the knowledge to himself, who Billy Budd was. Chapter 29 Some few weeks after the execution, among other matters under the head of News from the Mediterranean, there appeared in a naval chronicle of the time, an authorized weekly publication, an account of the affair.
It was doubtless for the most part written in good faith, tho’ the medium, partly rumor, through which the facts must have reached the writer, served to deflect and in part falsify them.
The account was as follows:- “On the tenth of the last month a deplorable occurrence took place on board H.M.S.
John Claggart, the ship’s Master-at-arms, discovering that some sort of plot was incipient among an inferior section of the ship’s company, and that the ringleader was one William Budd; he, Claggart, in the act of arraigning the man before the Captain was vindictively stabbed to the heart by the suddenly drawn sheath-knife of Budd. “The deed and the implement employed, sufficiently suggest that tho’ mustered into the service under an English name the assassin was no Englishman, but one of those aliens adopting English cognomens whom the present extraordinary necessities of the Service have caused to be admitted into it in considerable numbers. “The enormity of the crime and the extreme depravity of the criminal, appear the greater in view of the character of the victim, a middle-aged man respectable and discreet, belonging to that official grade, the petty-officers, upon whom, as none know better than the commissioned gentlemen, the efficiency of His Majesty’s Navy so largely depends.
His function was a responsible one, at once onerous & thankless, and his fidelity in it the greater because of his strong patriotic impulse.
In this instance as in so many other instances in these days, the character of this unfortunate man signally refutes, if refutation were needed, that peevish saying attributed to the late Dr.
Johnson, that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. “The criminal paid the penalty of his crime.
The promptitude of the punishment has proved salutary.
Nothing amiss is now apprehended aboard H.M.S.
Indomitable.” The above, appearing in a publication now long ago superannuated and forgotten, is all that hitherto has stood in human record to attest what manner of men respectively were John Claggart and Billy Budd.
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