Billy Budd: Novel Summary: Chapters 15-18
One warm night, Billy is awakened on the uppermost deck by a man who tells him to come to a hidden platform, where the man will meet him. Billy does as he is asked. The stranger, a member of the ship's crew, says he knows Billy was impressed (that is, forced into service), and that he was too. The stranger says that they are not the only impressed men on the ship, and asks Billy if he would like to help them. Billy is so surprised and angry that he begins to stutter. He tells the man to go away, but the sailor does not move. Billy threatens to throw him overboard, and the man disappears in the direction of the mainmast.
A couple of forecastlemen inquire of Billy what the noise was about, and Billy explains that an afterguardsman had come into their part of the ship, and he, Billy, had sent the man away. The two sailors accept his explanation.
Billy puzzles over the meaning of the stranger's words, which make him uneasy. He has no idea what the stranger had in mind, except that it must have been evil.
The following day he sees the man again, on the upper gun deck. The man is chatting and laughing with some of the crew and does not look like someone who would be engaged in a conspiracy. The man nods to Billy in a friendly manner. Billy sees him again a couple of days later, and the man gives him another friendly greeting.
Billy keeps the earlier incident to himself. It does not enter his mind that he should report it to the proper authorities, and in any case, he would not wish to be known as a tell-tale.
But he does confide in the old Dansker, who tells him once again that "Jimmy Legs" is down on him. Billy is amazed, and wonders what Claggart has to do with the incident. But the Dansker offers no reply.
Billy refuses to believe that the master-at-arms is against him. He is young and inexperienced, with no knowledge or intuition about evil. Meanwhile, Claggart seems to become even more amiable and well-disposed toward him. The worst Billy thinks of him is that Claggart behaves in an odd manner sometimes. He has no inkling of the malice Claggart bears toward him.
Billy's innocence continues even when two minor officers, both of whom are Claggart's messmates, start looking at him in a way that suggests they have been told something about him that is not complimentary. Billy, who is popular with most of the crew, does not give this a second thought. Nor does he seek to question the sailor who had accosted him with talk of the impressed men needing his help.
Meanwhile, the hatred of Claggart for Billy continues to burn, but is still hidden under Claggart's reasonable exterior.
These chapters move the action forward by showing how evil, in the form of Claggart, continues to work insidiously on its intended target. Claggart is capable of using others to promote his own ends, a concept that is utterly foreign to Billy Budd. Evil is cunning, while good, in this case, is unable to fight back because it does not even know it is being attacked. Billy is described as a "child-man"; he is so innocent he is ill-equipped to survive in the world, which has its fair share of Claggarts waiting to do harm for no other reason than the fact that harm is what they do. Claggart's obsession with Billy, whose very innocence acts as a goad to him, is captured in the phrase "monomania," which describes his state of mind.
With the words, "Something decisive must come of it," (Claggart's monomania) that close the chapter, Melville is setting up the two chapters that follow, in which the tragic situation comes to a head.