Chapter XVIII. A New Conspiracy
 

The interior of the cabin appeared more desolate than ever in the gray light of dawn. The swinging light yet burned, but was now useless, all the dismal horrors of the place revealed by the slowly increasing gleam of day stealing down from above. Gunsaules had not appeared, and LeVere's stateroom door remained ajar, giving glimpse of the disarranged bunk within. The other doors were tightly closed. LeVere rather held back, not noticeably so, perhaps, yet enough to give me the lead, and, with one swift glance about, I led the way directly to Estada's stateroom.

Something sinister had occurred during the dark hours of the night. Of that I was convinced, and I believed we were now about to lift the veil hiding the tragedy. My heart pounded like a hammer as I rapped on the wooden panels and waited some response from within. There was no answer, no sound of movement, and I rapped again more loudly, my questioning eyes seeking LeVere's face. He was listening as intently as myself, his eyes expressing anxiety. If I had felt some suspicion of the man before, this lack of faith vanished---he certainly was concerned in no plot involving the life of the Portuguese.

"There is something wrong, Senor," he whispered, "for he was ever a light sleeper."

"Then we will find out what it is."

The door was unlocked, the latch yielding instantly to the hand, and I stepped within. A glance told everything. The port was closed, but through the thick glass sufficient light found entrance to reveal the interior. The chair before the table was overturned, and there were papers scattered about the deck. Estada lay in his bunk, with one leg dangling outside, and his head crooked against the side wall. His very posture was that of sudden death, even had it not been pictured by the ghastly face, peculiarly hideous in the gray light which stared at us, and the dark pool of blood underneath. I heard an exclamation from LeVere, and stood for an instant utterly unable to move. The only sound audible was the steady drip of blood. I knew already what I should find, yet finally forced myself forward--he was stone dead, pierced with three knife thrusts. I stood up and faced the mulatto, whose countenance was fairly green with horror.

"What do you know about this, Senor LeVere?" I asked sternly. "The man has been murdered, knifed. Who did it--and why?"

He could scarcely answer, gripping at the table for support, and never removing his gaze from the face of the dead man. Yet I believed his words; was convinced this was not the terror of guilt.

"My God! I cannot tell; I have never dreamed of this--that is true, Senor."

"Had the man enemies. Anyone you would suspect?"

"Enemies? Ay, plenty of them; we all have. We expect that in our trade. This ship is full of devils ready enough to do such a job; but I could not name the one who did do it. I know of no cause. I have heard nothing."

"I believe you, LeVere," I said, when his voice ceased, yet unwilling even then to trust him fully. "All that rules here is strength. Murder is but a weapon, and hate struck this blow."

"What can we do, Senor?"

"Do! we must talk that over first. Open the port there and let in some fresh air. That is better; but we cannot think, looking at that ghastly face, and hearing the blood drip onto the deck. We'll leave him here and talk over the affair in the cabin."

"But the men will think it strange," he protested, "if I do not return to the deck; some may know what lies here."

"We cannot help that, LeVere. We cannot meet this thing until we are prepared; until we talk it over, and decide what to do. It is not the men on deck, the watch, I fear, but those fellows amidships--they are the ones to be afraid of; is that not so?"

"Si, Senor."

"Then come; there is more danger in hasty action than anything else."

I shut the door behind us, and turned the key. It was a relief to get outside, even into that dismal cabin, beyond view of Estada's dead face. The vessel rolled considerably, and LeVere, who had evidently lost his nerve, sank into a chair as though no strength remained in him.

"You fear an uprising, a mutiny?" I questioned, "when this is reported?"

"What will prevent?" he asked. "The Captain cannot stir; the mate dead; the men already crazed because we take no prizes. They will murder us also, and take control."

"Who will? Those devils amidships?"

"Ay; they care only to fight for gold--it is their trade."

"And who leads them? Who would they make captain?"

"Manuel Estevan," he whispered, "he would be the one."

"I thought as much. Then it is Manuel Estevan we must secure first--before they know. 'Tis my thought he is at the bottom of it all, and our hope lies in our early discovery. If we can act before he does, we may thwart his plan. Listen, LeVere; I will speak low for that forward stateroom is his. He has not supposed we would discover the murder so quickly, for he knew nothing of Estada's request that he be called at daylight--is this true?"

"Si, Senor; it was his last order when he went below."

"Good; then we must organize before he can act. We have that one chance left. Whatever his men may know of what has occurred they will make no move until they get his orders. We must stop the possibility of his issuing any. Without a leader, the advantage is ours."

"You mean to kill him?"

"Only as a last resort. I am no murderer, although there is enough at stake here to make me willing to take life. There is no good feeling between those quartered amidships, and the crew?"

"No, Senor; it is hate generally, although they are not all alike. The real sailors are mostly captured men; they serve to save their lives, and only for these others on board could not be held long. We do not arm them or use them to board prizes. It's those devils amidships who loot; that is all their work to fight and guard these others. Naturally there's no love lost between them. Your plan, Senor, is to set the one against the other?"

"Yes, if possible; I know no other way. These sailor men are of all races. Can they be trusted?"

He sat bending forward, his hands on his knees, his dark face far from pleasant. I had every reason to know the fellow to be criminal, desperate, guilty of everything in the calendar, and yet I must place confidence in him. Only as we worked together now was there any prospect of success.

"Some might be; it is hard to tell how many. It is not the race which counts so much, Senor. There are those among them who would not care to return to honesty."

"And you, LeVere?"

He spread his hands, and shrugged his shoulders.

"There is no hope of me; I was born to the free life."

"What then is it with you?"

"Hate, Senor--revenge," and his teeth gleamed savagely. "I would spit on this Manuel who seeks to be chief. I can never be---no; I am of black skin, with negro blood in my veins, and white men would never have it so. But I can hate, Senor. That is why I am with you now, if the devil so will. Your plan might work--tell me more of it."

"It is simple enough, LeVere, and came to me but now as I looked upon Estada lying there dead. Treachery killed him, and that treachery must have purpose behind it. You believe this to be the ambition of Manuel Estevan to become chief, and that in this he is backed by those buccaneers amidships whom he commands. But to accomplish this end there must soon be other murders aboard--the Captain Sanchez, and possibly our own as well, although 'tis likely he may offer us life to join him. But I doubt if the fellow be ready yet to throw off the mask and openly declare himself. He will claim the murder of Estada to be the act of some fiendish member of the crew, and wait until things aboard ripen to his purpose. He is not likely to dream that we suspect him. This gives us our chance--we can act before he does."

"But if the men are with him?"

"What are the odds, say you--thirty to a hundred? Ay, but surprise will overcome that. My plan is this; first, for you and I to secure Manuel, as quietly as possible, but at whatever cost. Surely that can be done. With him in our hands, or dead, the buccaneers have no leader. What then? There are men in the crew on deck and in the forecastle to be trusted--Watkins is one, and he will know others, a dozen, no doubt. They will be enough. We will whisper the truth to these, and have them ready for a signal. The forward door from amidships is closed by iron bars--is it not?"

"Si, Senor," his eyes again sparkling with interest. "The men quarreled, and there was fighting."

"Then there is no escape in that direction and it can be no great task to close any passage leading aft. Lower the deck hatch, and we have those devils below caged like so many rats. There need be no fighting; starvation will bring them to terms."

"But, Senor, you forget--your dozen men cannot guard the buccaneers below, and also manage the bark at sea. The crew are not all lambs--many will sympathize with those thus locked beneath deck. Cochose is bad, and a friend of Manuel. He will fight, and there are others to back him."

"I know that, LeVere. The whole plan is desperate, but there is no other possible. Here is my scheme. There is a gun rack in the cabin, containing enough weapons to arm the dozen men we can trust. The others have nothing but their sheath knives. The buccaneers can be secured below, before these other lads ever realize what is happening--many will be asleep in the forecastle. As soon as we have control of the ship we'll round them up forward. They won't dare face the guns. I'll give them their choice, and, as for Cochose, I've taken his measure once already, and am ready to try it again."

"And what will you tell them, Senor?"

I caught my breath, conscious of his meaning. My secret hope could not be revealed to this fellow. However hate and ambition might sway him, and however personal fear might influence him, at the moment, his purpose and mine were entirely different. Piracy was his life; he knew and cared for nothing else. In innate savagery he was not better than any of the others, and must be dealt with accordingly. Just now I must have him on my side, and conditions had delivered him into my hands. But I could only hope to retain him through self interest. The mulatto had little faith in me; I was a stranger, an Englishman, unknown and untried. Naturally we were enemies. He would make use of me for the present if he could, and as smilingly knife me tomorrow if it served his turn. I felt confident of that, and in consequence the answer came quickly to my lips.

"The whole truth, Senor LeVere--that Manuel conspired to seize the bark through a mutiny of the buccaneers; that these were to be turned loose with license to kill anyone on board who opposed them; that their real purpose was to divide among themselves all the treasure below; then wreck the vessel, and escape with it. That to this end Estada had already been foully murdered and that they also intended to take the lives of the other officers so as to be free to do as they pleased. I shall explain that we discovered this conspiracy just in time to save them from butchery, and that they must stand by us, or else submit to those hell-hounds. I'll put it strong."

"And after that, Senor?"

"Why Porto Grande, of course," I admitted heartily. "It is not a long voyage, and if we bring the boat in safely the treasure is ours. The men will understand what that means--a handful of gold for each of them and a run ashore. Why, LeVere, they will make more apiece than by looting a half dozen ships, and with no fighting. It will be a fortune for you and me."

His somber eyes lighted up, startled by this new idea, and he sprang to his feet, swaying before me to the pitch of the deck.

"You mean that, Senor! We divide what is below, and sail for Porto Grande? I hear you right? You not mean surrender? You stay pirate?"

I laughed, my nerves tingling to the success of my ruse--he had taken the tempting bait like a hungry fish.

"Why of course; so that was the trouble. Hell! man, I am not such a fool as to throw away this chance. I came aboard here without a dollar, drunk, a sailor before the mast. Look at me now---shoved into a job as first officer, with my full share of all we can lay hands on. Do you suppose I'm going back to the forecastle, and a bit of silver? Not me! I'm for all I can get, and with no care how I get it. This is our chance, LeVere. If we put the Namur into Porto Grande, with Sanchez on board and alive, and those hell-hounds locked below, we'll get anything we ask for. We'll be the cocks of the walk. If he shouldn't live through, why then we'll have a ship, and can run the game alone. Either way, if we win, the prize is ours--and, by God! if we stick together we win."

My apparent enthusiasm caught the fellow. I could read the working of his mind in his face. This was a new view of the situation, a new vision. It appealed to him from every standpoint--it promised wealth, power, the total defeat of Estevan; everything he most desired. And as I pictured it, the result seemed easy of attainment. His eyes gleamed lightning.

"You think Senor Sanchez live?"

"What difference? If he lives he owes his life to us. If he dies the bark is in our hands, and the treasure. The thing to consider now is how to get control. Once we have won, we care nothing if he live or die. Come, we have wasted time enough in talk; it is action that counts--what say you? Are we together in this?"

He thrust out a lean, yellow hand, and I gripped it firmly.

"Si, Senor; you speak right. To do this we must act. I am with you."

"You pledge your word, Francois?"

"I pledge it, Senor."

"Good! and you have mine. Now to the work--first Manuel Estevan, and then the men on deck. 'Tis his stateroom yonder."