Chapters 15-18 Summary
Last Updated on February 21, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
Several days following the soup spill occurrence, a more distressing incident takes place.
Billy is woken up from his sleep by someone who touches him and speaks to him in a hushed voice. The person is in the shadows, so Billy can't see who it is. The person tells Billy to go to a protected area on the front of the ship because there is some kind of impending danger. Despite not wanting to disobey the person, Billy follows their instructions.
In the dark forechains, someone approaches Billy whose face he cannot make out. Despite this, Billy observes the stranger's body shape and movement and concludes that he is likely one of the afterguardsmen. The stranger, holding two shiny objects that resemble guineas, tells Billy that there is a group of sailors who have been impressed. The stranger seems to offer the shiny objects to Billy.
Billy realizes that there is a suspicious and rebellious plan being suggested, which makes him anxious and causes him to stutter. He warns the unknown individual that he will throw them overboard, but the person swiftly vanishes into the darkness.
The loud meeting has disturbed a sailor named Red Pepper who heard Billy's stuttering voice and recognized him. Red Pepper asked him about it and Billy was able to control his stuttering. Billy didn't make a big deal out of it and just said he found an afterguardsman in their area of the ship. This explanation was enough to satisfy Red Pepper, as sailors are usually protective of their designated areas.
Billy is downplaying the incident but internally, he is troubled and puzzled by the strange occurrence. This is the first time someone has approached him in such a sneaky way, and he's uncertain about its significance. He's questioning whether the shiny objects he was shown were actually gold coins. As he thinks more about what happened, he becomes increasingly unsettled.
The following afternoon, Billy encounters the afterguardsman, who acknowledges him with a nod. A couple of days later, the afterguardsman greets Billy in a friendly manner once again. Despite feeling greatly disturbed, Billy doesn't consider that it may be his obligation to report the friendly gesture to the appropriate authorities.
Billy confides in Dansker, sharing his troubles with him. Dansker responds by saying that the afterguardsman is just a tool being used by the master-at-arms. Dansker's use of the term "cats-paw" implies that the afterguardsman is being manipulated by someone else. Billy finds it hard to believe that the afterguardsman, who had always been friendly to him, could be involved in such deceitful behavior.
Actually, Claggart appears to be more affable towards Billy than he has ever been. He is courteous and pleasant towards him, however, when he encounters Billy unexpectedly, his eyes emit a strange "red light". Billy observes that the master-at-arms behaves oddly on occasion, but doesn't pay much attention to it.
Despite Dansker's counsel, Billy retains an innocent perception of John Claggart's genuine sentiments towards him. This is not due to Billy's lack of intelligence but rather his naivety. Melville highlights that sailors tend to have a simple-minded approach, which is attributed to their youthful and immature nature. He proposes that this attribute results from their training to adhere to obedience, instead of being taught to think independently.
After the incident, Billy notices a few peculiar occurrences. Firstly, he's not getting involved in the minor mischiefs he used to. Secondly, the armorer and the captain of the hold seem to be aware of something negative about him, as they start behaving differently towards him.