Summary and Analysis
Cereno surprises Delano by rejecting his hospitality. Unable to account for so rude a rejection, Delano, seeing the two ships anchored together and the Rover returning to fetch him, retraces his steps to bid farewell to his recalcitrant host. Cereno grasps Delano's hand but seems too agitated to speak. After Cereno returns to his cushion, Delano takes his exit, brushing past Atufal at the doorway. As Delano places his foot on the rope ladder, preparatory to descending into his boat, Cereno, leaning heavily on Babo, appears to offer a courteous farewell and clings to Delano's hand.
Captain Delano boards his boat. Before the crew drops their oars into the water, Cereno suddenly springs overboard into the stern at Delano's feet. Three Spanish sailors leap overboard and swim toward Don Benito. Before Delano can fully comprehend the unexpected movement, Babo jumps into the Rover, dagger drawn as though intending to harm Delano. Delano wrenches the weapon away and hits Babo with such force that the black man is thrown to the bottom of the boat. As Delano tries to hear Cereno's words, he notices that Babo has pulled a second dagger from his hair and is aiming it at Cereno's heart. At once, Delano realizes that Babo is an enemy. He strikes Babo, who is immediately restrained, and realizes that the blacks aboard the San Dominick are irate at the turn of events. As they roil on the decks above, the Spanish ship's cable is cut and a loose end whips the canvas shroud from the figurehead. Beneath lies a human skeleton; chalked below it are the words, "Follow your leader."
Melville proves a good showman in building the action to a vivid and riveting climax. As Delano takes his leave, he continues to ponder repeated rebuffs to his proffered hospitality. He chooses to "[postpone] his ulterior plans" and "[regulate] future actions according to future circumstances," or, in today's lingo, play it by ear. His veiled farewell is "tacitly rebukeful." Cereno, again raising Delano's hope that his host will behave appropriately, dashes the "good augury" by averting his eyes, resuming his reserve, and taking to his cushions. Delano, offering quid pro quo, ices over his own demeanor. The discordant relationship between the two captains is echoed by the "ship's flawed bell," which reverberates dismally below deck. Delano's overactive imagination consumes his thinking with swarms of "superstitious suspicions" and hurt feelings over Cereno's spurning his evening chat over cups of coffee.
Melville revives the standoff by having Cereno limp topside, leaning on Babo, his crutch. Delano relents in his harsh evaluation of Cereno; Cereno, murmuring a blessing, asks that "God guard you better than me, my best friend." The bizarre scenario that follows the protracted leavetaking astounds Delano: unable to decode the frenzied words of Cereno as he flings himself into the Rover, Delano, as he has done repeatedly, misconstrues the gesture as an attempt to implicate Delano in a kidnap plot. The revelation of Babo's murderous intent and the fervid madness of the foiled Ashantis resembles a biblical conversion by which Ananias, filled with the Lord's power, causes the scales to fall from the eyes of Saul. In tandem with this benediction descends the malediction of the skeletal figurehead, revealed above its taunting, cynical rejoinder, "Follow your leader."
the Jew, who refrained not from supping at the board of him whom the same night he meant to betray an extended allusion to Judas Iscariot, a former disciple who left the disciples' last meal with Christ, their mentor, in order to betray him.
scales dropped from his eyes an allusion to Acts 9:18, the conversion of Saul to Paul, a major figure in the early Christian Church.
dervishes devout Muslims said to whirl in their expression of piety.