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None of the men at the trial have any clue to Claggart's antipathy. They do not understand why he would he go after Billy in this manner. Vere states that Claggart's motives are beside the point. They are present to assess the death alone. Billy, not quite understanding the implication of the comment, looks at Vere much like a gentle dog anxiously regarding his master. The three officers are affected, and Vere's upset is evident.
One of the officers asks if there might be someone else on board the ship that can shed some light on the mystery. Again, Captain Vere feels this question is beside the point, for the court can't deal with the "mystery of iniquity." He redirects the court away from the motives to the matter at hand: the death of Claggart. One of the officers, reading Vere's look, asks Billy if he has any more to say. Billy looks at Vere and says he does not. Billy is then ordered back to the adjoining stateroom.
The court is silent and troubled as they ponder the case. Deciding the officers need help understanding a thing or two, Vere stands before them and delivers a speech. He says he is no longer just a witness, but a colleague. He sees the difference between military duty and moral scruple, but it is clear to him by which they should make their judgment. They all understand that human nature has been at work, but their work is military. They must adhere to their duties as King's officers of the fleet; the moral part must be left to God for judgment. If they condemn Billy, they are not personally responsible for the judgment; it is military law at work. Neither are they responsible for Billy's soul.
Vere further urges them not to let their warm hearts betray their cool heads; the "woman" in them must be ruled out. Their consciences must not rule over military duty. Vere ends by summarizing the actual events that took place. The officers point out that Billy Budd meant neither mutiny nor homicide. Vere again claims that those things are beside the point; intent means nothing. Under the Mutiny Act, he recommends that they must fully convict Billy or fully acquit him. The officers want to simply hand down a penalty for Billy, but Vere insists it is not appropriate. It is guilty or not guilty, life or death. Any other approach will not be understood by the sailors and create a mutinous attitude amongst them. Vere regrets the situation but knows Billy, the unfortunate boy, will look generously on the ruling. Captain Vere then moves away to look out a porthole window. The court is, of course, stirred and influenced by his words.
In the end, Billy is convicted and sentenced to hang at morning watch. The immediacy is due to wartime consideration.
Melville carefully builds the events of these chapters to the climax of the novel, when Billy is sentenced to death for innocently killing an evil man. The message seems to be that when "iniquity" raises its head, all parties will lose. Of course, Billy is the biggest loser of all.
In these three chapters, less than an hour passes, and Billy moves from expecting a promotion for his good work to being sentenced to hang for murder. The irony is tragic. Captain Vere clearly thinks that Claggart is to blame for the whole incident and probably got what he deserved. Again, ironically, Vere had warned Claggart that false witnessing would end in the yardarm; little did Vere know that it would be Billy hanging.