Lookers-on could comprehend the scene in its entirety; and with Leyden's tigerish leap another element came in. Out from the blackened jungle pealed the cries of savages, and a flight of arrows directed against Houten's launch gave ample evidence of the side the bowmen favored. Barry touched Gordon's arm, and together they emptied their pistols into the trees, a useless expenditure of ammunition at that distance. But their efforts were unnecessary; the trap required no bolstering; for with the first cries from the jungle came an answering shout, and behind the ridge where Rolfe and Little and old Bill Blunt lay appeared these watchful guards with a dozen Dutch seamen alongside them; and the arrows had barely reached their mark, harmless, when a single, blasting volley of musketry drove the intruding natives shrieking to cover, never to risk another attack.
The little incident had taken but a few seconds, yet when rifles ceased barking and silence again enveloped the gloomy creek, the deadly grapple on the wreck had reached its climax. Leyden was upon Vandersee's breast, one hand clutching desperately at his throat, the other gripping a murderous knife yet unable to use it, for the big Hollander had a grip on the wrist that could not be broken.
"Like a rat!" muttered Gordon. "Lord lean to Justice!"
Barry suddenly found Natalie in need of support, for her courage, once past the crisis, was not proof against the sort of soul-revolting conflict she was now forced to witness. Barry drew her to him with an arm about her shoulders, and she rested against him with a little sigh of relief. His own eyes refused to leave the scene on his old ship; but beside him he heard voices, and he knew that Mrs. Goring too had found the stress too great and had sought comfort in Gordon's arms. Yet those two people had reason, too strong to be downed, for witnessing Leyden's atonement; and while on that blasted and corpse-like wreck two men fought, one in awful, cold, remorseless silence, the other with broken screams of insane fury that availed him nothing, Mrs. Goring murmured between racking sobs:
"Not vengeance for my pain, dear God! Only repayment for the golden years he stole from the man who loved me!"
The sobs ceased, and the murmuring hushed, and the two women were spared the rest. With a terrific outburst of shrill railing against everything human or divine that could have any possible hand in his defeat, Leyden gathered superhuman strength out of his desperation and tore loose his knife hand. His other hand, at Vandersee's throat, had grown white and numb from its own efforts that had not changed the Hollander's expression one bit; but now, in a last swift up-stroke of the knife, the cornered rat saw victory beckoning to him.
He drove in his thrust, and Barry went cold at sight of it. He wondered angrily at Houten's indifference. The great trader stood in his launch as unruffled as if in his office; his men, although they retained their rifles in hand, offered to use them for no other purpose than keeping their prisoners quiet. And just beside them, that murderous blade swished through the air fair aimed at Vandersee's breast. Then the big Hollander stepped back, and stumbled.
"Gone!" Barry and Gordon cried hoarsely together. Yet they saw Houten in his old, apparently indifferent attitude, and could not force themselves to move. Men sprang into full sight where Rolfe and his party were, and they, too, remained in their places. The thing was uncanny: the colossal trader exercised a compelling influence over everybody about him, bordering upon the supernatural. Not a hand was raised in Vandersee's vital peril. Then the utter confidence of the man was revealed.
With his stumble Vandersee drew back from his antagonist three feet, and Leyden plunged forward, tripped by his own balked impetus. The knife flashed upwards, missing its mark by a foot, and while yet the sun played on the steel in midair Vandersee recovered, smiling now with terrible assurance, and his great bulk leaned, his long, powerful arms enwrapped his foe in a hug that paralyzed every limb. The knife fell through Leyden's clutching fingers, and the point quivered for a moment in Vandersee's shoulder before it fell to disappear through the broken planks. The next breath brought both men heavily against a gaunt, charred stanchion, and Leyden's terrified cry pealed over the water.
Alongside the wreck, on the schooner, ashore, wherever a man was stationed, faces looked on in fascination. Still Houten stood in his place, his placid visage regarding the conflict unmoved; no line of his immense figure revealing anything in him save a sort of bovine indifference in the result. In a flash everything was changed in him. The sudden impact of those two struggling bodies was the final strain the stanchion could bear; the blackened timber burst into splinters, and Vandersee and his foe crashed through and pitched headlong into the swirling current of the creek entrance.
Then Houten's real interest was shown, and swiftly. His guttural voice barked a brief order in Dutch, the concealed men on the wreck sprang into sight and covered Leyden's men in the launch, and like the dart of a shark Houten drove his own craft out into the stream after the vanished combatants, his great red face gone ashy, his beady eyes gleaming anxiously.
On board the schooner Barry drove his men to boat-falls in hasty endeavor to get a boat over; but the effort could have only proved fruitless, for the stream ran like a mill race around those writhing, twisting grasses that endlessly bent, straightened, and twined, and the undertow was appalling. Houten's launch rounded the Barang's stern and the trader searched the waters with outthrust head that contrasted strongly with his previous attitude of nonchalance.
Something rolled upwards on the surface at the very edge of the grasses and disappeared again. In a few seconds it appeared again, and now Vandersee's red, strangling face emerged from the water. The launch shot towards him and picked him up, twenty yards from the spot where he had plunged in grips with Leyden. When he regained his breath, he pointed inshore beside the wreck, and the launch put back. Still there came no sight of Leyden; and soon the boat headed for the schooner, Vandersee's men bringing Leyden's launch in response to an order. And the two burly Hollanders came on board the Padang in quiet mood, mounted to the poop and met their friends with a subdued, almost sorrowful smile. Mrs. Goring and Gordon could not restrain their anxiety, however, and Vandersee answered their looks of inquiry.
"It is finished," he said very seriously. "Not by my hand, but by the inevitable hand of Justice. We fell beside that weed bank, and separated as we struck the water. I came up outside the eddy; being the heavier the current had more action on me; but he plunged deep into the grass. I went down again to try to release him, but it was out of my hands then." Vandersee shuddered slightly, then his soft, placid smile returned, full of quiet reverence for the name he now used. "God had taken vengeance from me and had substituted his infallible Justice. Leyden lies down there under that bank, with a rope of weed about his neck that no strength of mine could break."
"It iss better so!" grumbled Houten, after a silence that thrilled. He stepped over to Gordon, took his hand in a short, warm grip, then gently put him aside, and gathered Mrs. Goring into his tremendous arms, kissing her on the lips and soothing her with rough, kindly whispers.
Barry felt the general stress and knew that it was not yet time for further questions. He knew that much remained a mystery; and much would doubtless be cleared up in the good time of these two inscrutable Dutchmen. He dully wondered just who or what Mrs. Goring could be, for he had seen three men successively take her in a warm embrace, with no sign of resentment in either. He simply left it with the rest to be explained, and felt a swift and grateful glow pervade him in the close and confident proximity of Natalie, who had relaxed with a little shiver into his arms, her fair face hiding its trouble on his breast, her sunny hair caressing his cheek.
"Come, Captain, let me take her below," said Mrs. Goring at length, coming forward with her own brave face composed to calmness. "She will soon get over this experience now that it is finished."
Barry helped Natalie inside the companionway, and as Mrs. Goring took her in charge, the girl lifted her face to Barry and gave him a wan smile that nevertheless carried its message to him. He, all unversed in such matters, suddenly found knowledge and stooped to kiss her lips; then as suddenly restrained himself, with all the past in his mind, and pressed his kiss on her hand instead. Mrs. Goring seemed to flash approval to him, then took her charge to her cabin, leaving the skipper to rejoin the men and gather up the remaining threads of the situation.
Over on the creek shore Houten's launch was taking on board Rolfe and Little and their party, having returned for them after seeing Leyden's men secured. Farther along the bank a party of naval seamen were waiting for a big steam pinnace speeding up the river from its downstream concealment. Leyden's own steam launch had been commandeered into the service, and was taking up the scattered guards from the farther bank; somewhere in the blue and yellow haze of the sea beyond the river sounded the hoarse, prolonged blast of a steamship's siren; and Houten was giving expert first aid to the knife-cut in Vandersee's shoulder, while that stolid individual insisted in shame-tinged gutturals that it was nothing.
"Here iss the captain now," rumbled Houten as Barry appeared. "In a leedle while we are reatty to leave, yes. If you can hoist oop Leyden's launch und make t'ings snug for sea, my boat und Hendrik's will be taken oop by der gunboat now oudside waiting for us."
"Yes, Captain Barry," rejoined Vandersee, with his old suave smile, "and I owe you some explanation before we leave. If you will get the schooner ready, it will give the ladies time to recover a little, and when my sister is herself again, everything shall be made clear to you which appears puzzling now."
"Your sister?" exclaimed Barry.
"Yes, Captain, Mrs. Goring as you know her, or Miss Vandersee as she is, is my sister. Mr. Houten is our uncle, also. Perhaps you will connect things slightly now, by the time we are ready," replied Vandersee, while Cornelius Houten chuckled deep down in his cavernous chest and shot a twinkle from his beady eyes at the astonished skipper.
Barry's thoughts kept him busy along with his duties for half an hour, by which time the schooner had taken up her boat, and a general transfer of men had been accomplished. The big pinnace, which belonged to the invisible gunboat, took on board the Dutch seamen and the survivors of Leyden's band, leaving the Barang's crew under Rolfe and Blunt on board the schooner with Barry. Tom Little was in close conversation with Houten, and Gordon stood by as if quietly awaiting the outcome of it. Old Bill Blunt was forward, making the decks rattle with his lusty roar as he drove the little brown sailors to their jobs of preparing for sea. Outwardly the old fellow had managed to keep intact; it was only when he cut himself a quid of tobacco by jamming the plug into the sheave of a block and sawing at it with one hand that it could be noticed his left hand never left his belt and that his sleeve was dark and soggy.
Mrs. Goring and Natalie Sheldon appeared on deck while Little and Houten were still talking, and they had regained their color and self-control, only revealing a slight shudder of recollection when their eyes fell upon the devastated creek. Houten noticed this and cut short his consultation.
"So, dot iss settled, Mister Leedle," he said abruptly and met the ladies with a vast and paternal smile. "Captain Barry, when dot launch I had comes back from dot gunboat, we schall sail. Mister Leedle has agreed to go back to the station unt take charge until Mister Gordon returns, unt he takes dot launch unt some navy mans to stay mit him in case dose leedle brown mans ouf Leyden's make more bodder. So now mine boy Hendrik schall tell you somedings, yes?"
Barry kept silent, merely nodding. Vandersee spoke in low tones to Gordon and Mrs. Goring for a moment, received their aquiescence to his question, then faced the skipper with an expression of resignation to a task not entirely to his liking.
"Some of the story is not very pleasant, Barry, so I'll make it brief," he said. "It's due to you and to Little, otherwise I'd ask you to let your doubts remain unanswered. Beginning with my uncle's engagement of Little and yourself, at that time everybody concerned believed that gold was to be found on this river,—everybody, that is, except Leyden and Gordon here. Gordon desires me to tell the entire story, so I am not going to waste time by repeated apologies. The chief thing in this gold business is that Houten believed it implicitly, and naturally he wanted to know where his property was going to. Hence your engagement.
"Now to explain some of the mystery that has bothered you, Captain, it was discovered by my government some time back that Leyden was operating a tremendous opium smuggling business, and the entire interior of the island was in his grip. You'll see now how he could command such numbers of native fighters to drive you out or kill you. Eventually I was detailed to the duty of running him down. I am, as you perhaps have gathered, a lieutenant in the Dutch navy."
"Yes, yes," interrupted Barry, interested, yet hotly impatient to arrive at matters more closely concerning him personally. "That is all right, Vandersee. I know that, and that Mrs. Goring is your sister, and that she came here in my ship and stole my picture and why," he ran on, giving the lady a reassuring grin as he mentioned the theft of the photo by the brutal name. "I know, too, the connection between the opium running and the gold-dust swindle; you told me that; but I can't see yet why there was any necessity to compel me to keep my hands off that fellow, since we were all out for him, though on different errands. Seems to me a lot of useless waste of energy when he could have been taken weeks ago if you had made me acquainted with the inside of the business."
As he spoke, Mrs. Goring's face paled, and pain entered her eyes. Gordon patted her shoulder tenderly, and Natalie soothed her with soft speech. Vandersee waited for a moment until the pain had been banished by a brave smile and she nodded to him resolutely, then he resumed in reply to Barry:
"That is the real story, Captain. Juliana and I have not been blessed with parents since childhood. Mr. Houten is the only parent my sister has known. While she lived in his house, she met Gordon, and they soon became engaged to each other. I think you'll spare her the details, Barry, when I tell you this: While Gordon was absent on a business trip Leyden entered Juliana's home, became very intimate with my uncle, and was soon trusted utterly. Then subtle tales began to trickle in to Juliana and Mr. Houten about Gordon; and after a while they forced belief. They grew worse, and as they got blacker, Leyden's influence with my uncle increased until Houten accepted him as a partner and as a suitor for my sister's hand." Mrs. Goring shuddered violently, and Barry sensed that the climax to her story was near. Vandersee went on: "Barry, my sister fell under the spell of that man, and—"
Vandersee's calm was not equal to his task. It was Gordon who took up the story, and his voice vibrated with passion:
"The beast took her away and then flung her adrift on the port of Singapore, Barry! There was a little truth and a lot of lies in those tales circulated about me. True, I had been using liquor rather more than was good for a white man out here; but when I heard of this last piece of villainy, I simply went a complete mucker. I got so low and vile that I gradually lost my resolve to find him and choke the foul life out of him. When, after years, he came to me in this river and made his proposition about using the post as an entry port for his drug under cover of the gold-dust myth, I was even so far gone down the track as to agree to everything, if only I could be kept supplied with liquor. I willingly robbed Houten, although everything I ever had, this post, the last chance anybody on earth would give me, I owe to him." Gordon paused, passed a caressing hand along Mrs. Goring's arm, and concluded: "I only came to my senses, and to a promise of life again, when this lady came here and found me. Barry, a noble woman is a wonderful work of God!"
"I believe that," replied Barry quietly. "So that is why you stowed away in my ship, Mrs. Goring? If I had known, you should never have been refused a passage when you asked."
"That was not all, Captain," smiled the woman, her face transfigured by her triumph. "I came chiefly to be at hand when this sweet girl needed a friend," she said, patting Natalie's hand. "We knew she was to have a terrible awakening. We, I particularly, knew the man who had fascinated her. Besides that, I came to help my brother; and, above all, Captain, I came to satisfy myself whether love could really die."
Natalie had listened intently to a story she already had heard, and at Mrs. Goring's concluding words she shivered slightly and added: "And by God's grace, it cannot—if it is love."
Barry glanced inquiringly at the girl, and she blushed rosily. He said softly: "You have something to say in this, I'm sure, for you made a remark about the success of my expedition that was quite at variance with some of your earlier remarks to me."
"Why—I have scarcely anything to say," Natalie hesitated with heightened color. "I ought to tell you why I seemed to doubt you, though. That is due to you, after you have lost your ship and everything in my behalf. I am ashamed to tell it, but I was completely fascinated by that man. I believed in him utterly, and so did the Mission folks. You can believe that when I gave up the Mission work at his word and placed myself under his protection from your crew of pirates, as he called you."
"Go on," urged Barry, as she paused.
"That is all, I think, Captain. While I believed him, of course I doubted you, whom I had met but once or twice. Then after Mr. Gordon recovered and I heard a dispute one day between him and Leyden, when Gordon and I had been left alone for an hour, I saw a light and demanded to know the truth of Mrs. Goring, whom I had grown to love. The story she told was duplicated by Mr. Gordon, and again by Lieutenant Vandersee, backed up by a stolen glimpse at the Padang's papers, showing she had cleared for Europe, and not for Batavia, as I had been led to believe. I was forced to see the horrible situation I had placed myself in; for if this schooner ever got out to sea—" She stopped in distress, and Barry pressed her hand gently. He asked quietly:
"And you believe in me now, Natalie?"
"I have never doubted you since that horrible day I saw you on the ant hill. But since that day I, too, have played a part. Mrs. Goring's proved wrongs and my own narrow escape steeled me to help Vandersee, as he asked me. I did my poor best, Captain; but I am so glad it's all over."
Barry realized that the tale was told. His first impulse was to give Gordon a hard hand-grip of friendship; his second to tell Mrs. Goring his high opinion of her courage and loyalty. He followed both impulses, but felt a little embarrassment in addressing the lady of various names. He took Mrs. Goring's hand in his and remarked with a smile:
"I scarcely know how to address you now. Is it Mrs. Goring? or have I got it wrong? Should it be Mrs. Gordon? Pardon me if I'm floundering."
"Not Gordon, yet, Captain," she replied, and again the hint of pain in her eyes was banished by a resolute smile. "I am still Miss Vandersee. I have never been married. I took a married name after—after—well, there was a little one, you know," she murmured softly, "a tiny life to be guarded from the poison of tongues. So I stole a name for its sake. It is dead now. I am Miss Vandersee."
A deep silence was marked by the men walking away and leaving the two women to their own thoughts; and the relief was welcomed when Vandersee reported the steam launch in sight. In five minutes it was alongside, and the men in her held the ladder for Little. The ex-typewriter salesman travelled light enough now, for all his worldly belongings reposed somewhere among the drenched and shattered interior of the brigantine.
"Well, so long, Jack Barry, old scout!" he shouted, after he had made his adieux to the rest. "We've had a lot o' sport since I dug you out o' the dumps in Batavia. I'm staying here until Mr. and Mrs. Gordon come to relieve me; then I'll see you again, either in Java, or at the post, if you decide to try Celebes again. Stick to Cornelius, Jack. He's tickled silly with you; never mind about the ship you lost. So-long, all!"
The cheery fellow dropped into the launch and waved her on her way up the river with a lordly air of command that brought a grin of reminiscence to Barry's face. Then Houten's rumbling voice boomed in his ear, and he heard his destiny and that of all hands.
"Captain Barry, you have done well. Noddings dot I expected you to do vas undone. I am satisfied. Friendt Leedle iss to be mine superintendent in Java ven Gordon unt the niece he iss stealing from me are retty to return to the post. Yah, Captain, dot iss deir choice. Gordon iss to be mine partner, anyvay. As for Captain Barry, I dond't know," he chuckled, regarding the skipper with eyes that twinkled and shot between Barry's face and Natalie just behind him. The girl colored like a peony, as if some unsuspected instinct within her told her whither his words were driving. "I haf better ships as the old Barang, Captain, unt in my launch alongside I haf some pags ouf goldt dust dot iss to be a wedding present for a leedle lady I know ouf py der name ouf Natalie. Yes? No? How iss it, mine childrens?"
Natalie ran below, overcome with confusion. The old trader turned to Barry, his whimsical humor giving place to cold business. "For now, Barry, I haf to say take this schooner to Surabaya. It iss at the orders ouf dot navy mans. Hendrik has to rejoin his ship, unt it will take a week or so to clean oop all dose leedle things left py dose opium runners, I come mit you, too, unt if you are short ouf a mate, I can stand a watch yet. Now schall we start? Hendrik joins his ship outside."
"Man the windlass, Rolfe, and heave away!" shouted Barry, alight with excitement at what he had surprised on Natalie's face as she ran below. The mention of wedding presents might be a little premature; but Jack Barry knew enough to seize his chance and at least do his best to make it mature. He saw the mate take his men to the windlass, and cast a look at the boom-sails, all ready to hoist, since they had simply been let go when the schooner anchored and not made fast.
"Blunt!" he hailed.
"Aye, aye, sir!"
"Can you handle a watch with that crippled fin?"
"Crippled? Bless ye, Cap'n, I ain't crippled!"
"That arm, man."
"Huh! Ain't I got one left? Come on, Bullies! Clap on to them halliards!"
"All right," cried Barry. "Hoist away. Mains'l first."
Barry ran below to look out charts and rulers and the other navigating implements necessary for simple point-to-point navigation. He found Natalie sitting in the main saloon with her chin in her cupped hand, gazing into the future. Her eyes grew dusky and her face flooded with color as he stopped by her chair and placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Well, lady mine," he said, finding sudden boldness in her confusion. "Are you thinking of what old Cornelius said?"
"Not entirely," she replied, meeting his gaze with eyes that swiftly changed to disconcerting clearness. "Why should it be necessary for Mr. Houten to say anything?"
Barry had graduated from the awkward class, though perhaps not long ago. He swept her up in his arms, triumphantly aware that she struggled and submitted, and his lips sought hers in a first kiss. But suddenly, when her submission seemed absolute, Natalie revealed a strength that amazed and puzzled him. She writhed free from his grasp and said with a low little laugh:
"I was not thinking about what Cornelius said—but of what you once said to Juliana—Jack!"
He was staggered for a second, then he remembered, and would have followed her. But she ran into her own cabin and shut the door upon him. His duties compelled him to hurry, for the cable was coming in fast, and overhead the heavy canvas began to rattle and flap in the wind as the schooner swung. He entered the cabin that had been used as a chart room and rummaged the desk for parallel rulers and dividers; but a soft step behind him brought him to a stand quickly. Natalie stood beside him, a soft glow on her face, her eyes shining like stars now, and in her hand she held out a photograph to him.
"You said that when next you took this, it would be when I placed it in your cabin," she said, meeting his eyes with a blushing challenge.
Their souls met, spoke, and understood. She did not refuse him her lips now but surrendered with glad abandon. The hoarse roar of Rolfe, reporting the anchor apeak, and the bellowing bass of old Bill Blunt giving the word to belay the peak halliards, failed to disturb them. A second shout from the mate was answered by Barry's:
"Avast heaving a bit! I'm not ready yet."
But Natalie shyly looked up into his face and gave him her first order:
"No, Jack, tell them to heave away—that's how you say it, isn't it? Let us hurry home, before I tire of my terrible pirate."
"Pirate gladly, girl of mine. Am I not taking gold out of Celebes?"
"Sordid creature!" she pouted, averting her lips in mock displeasure. But in her face was a light that shone from her heart, and that heart knew quite well what gold Jack Barry was carrying away from Celebes.