Douglas Mortimer was particularly tender towards his wife on the last leg of the journey; though there had not been time to fear for her more than momentarily he had subsequently dwelled upon the thought of losing everything that was dearest to him in the whole world under the uncaring wheels of a locomotive. He would not have her be any other sort of girl of course; but it made her, and his child within her, all the more precious to him.
Roberta was not averse; she had been badly shaken.
"Oh Douglas!" she whispered "This is so foolish! Why I was not even hurt; not like when I was shot; but I feel quite unnecessary!"
"I suppose" said Douglas "We were too busy for you to worry over much when you got shot; and moreover it was a part of the way of life you had chosen. There's something inhumanly frightening about the power of machines perhaps."
"I suppose that may be it" said Roberta "I have time sitting in a railway carriage to brood – and to brood on what might have happened to that little girl. I never found out her name you know! But I think too it is because I have another to worry about as well as my own safety."
He put an arm around her.
"I will do all I can to ensure the safety of both of you my love" he said, wishing it did not sound and feel so inadequate. Roberta did not find it inadequate and sighed with satisfaction and leaned on him.
"You know just the right times to be protective, Douglas, and when to let me do what I know I can do" she said "It's nice to know that you respect me as well as love me. Do you think Peters will get Gellibrand?"
"No" said Mortimer. "If I was him – and as you said he is a wily creature – I would jump train at an earlier stop than I initially intended and go by another route or hole up and go another time or to somewhere entirely different. Even supposing there's a law man ready to take him at the other end. I think he'll elude the law."
"Ah well" said Roberta "We'll just have to go after him ourselves. Though it will either have to be before I start to show or after baby is born."
"You are amazing!" said Mortimer, ignoring the carriage full of people to kiss his wife and caring nothing for any censorious comments that might be made!
The very final part of the journey was accomplished by horse and carriage; and having arranged ahead by telegraph for the feast to be taken on by carrier, Mortimer purchased a carriage and good horses since he doubted Gellibrand had any idea how to pick good horseflesh.
It was certainly less chilly here than in the interior of the country which had been very cold; and Roberta looked out of the window at the familiar and yet somehow unfamiliar landscape.
Mortimer pulled up at her parents' house.
"We need to get this over" he said.
Roberta pulled a face but nodded.
The butler let them in, grinning all over his face.
"Miss 'Berta, large as life!" he said. "I always knowed you'd be safe!"
"Ben, didn't father and mother apprise you of that?" said Roberta "I wrote to them some time since to tell them that I was married to Colonel Mortimer here."
"Well Ben" said Mortimer "I recall you well enough; you've clipped my ears and Joseph's for trespassing in Roberta's grandfather's woods before now."
Ben grinned again.
"Yessir, that I recall well too!" he said "Yo' people will be right glad to have yo' back, sir!"
Leroy Everard was sour looking.
"Well Leroyna, I can't say that I'm pleased" he said "I'm not even sure that a runaway marriage like yours is legal!"
"It is in Arizona where it took place and full faith and credence dictates that it is so here too" said Roberta. "And besides we can afford better lawyers than you."
Her father went purple.
"Oh Roberta, you worried us so!" whined her mother. "And to marry a man so much older than you!"
"Well you worried me in not standing up to father over forcing me to marry Gellibrand" said Roberta "Who's older than my Douglas. And certainly not as much a man" she added. "AND he's a proven traitor. I'd watch your step, father: if anyone thought you, as so close a crony of his, was consorting with his business schemes…."
"You wouldn't dare, you little snake!" hissed her father.
"Try me" said Roberta. "Now y'all must excuse us; my husband and I have a homecoming to see to. Farewell; but don't expect me to feel too fond. Good afternoon."
"Well done" said Mortimer after they had left.
"I wanted to HIT him" said Roberta.
"I was more concerned you might shoot him; the congratulations were for managing not to" said Mortimer, dryly.
Oakridge House stood as the name implied on a ridge. Oak trees stood around it and too ringed the plantation and made up much of the woods that also belonged to the house, where Roberta knew that birch, maple and sycamore also grew. The house was much in the colonial style with a big portico held up with classical columns in the Ionic style, and long sash windows piercing the white stone walls. Steps down from the portico were edged by colonnades which continued in a sweep around to enclose a paved area under the windows, which on the ground floor opened out onto this paved area. One side was fully lit though it was not yet dark, the crepuscular hour approaching fast however. This was the ballroom where the feast was to be held.
Mortimer handed Roberta out of the coach; then swept her up in his arms to carry her over the threshold as if she were as light as thistledown; and put her down to lead her into the ballroom where all the workers were gathered on his orders.
Roberta had dressed for the occasion as her new people were owed as pretty a bride as she could be; and her happiness made her as much a beauty as any had ever seen, even though Roberta privately thought that Amaryllis was the lovely one of the two of them!
Roberta was in cornflower blue silk garnitured with a ruched silk ribbon in darker blue with a fine gold line in it. Her fichu was snowy white lace. Amaryllis was in dusky rose silk trimmed with white lace and Roberta thought that nobody could look as stylish! She felt fine enough however not to feel too intimidated by so many people that she must come to know; and smiled upon them as they stared at the newcomers.
The entire of the Plantation workers were black; a sea of dark faces greeted the Colonel and his wife and party; the older ones smiling, the younger ones uncertain. There had been, according to the lawyer's report, a white steward whose own actions had not born investigating; and who had left in the middle of the night with as many negotiable small valuables as he could manage.
"Howdy all" said Mortimer "I'm Douglas Mortimer; this is my wife, Roberta, my half brother Joseph and our niece Amaryllis. Along here we have Miss Preston who is going to be running a school for all the children on the plantation and such other local children as care to attend. Joseph, whom you all know, is going to be my steward. Now I've read myself in as they say at sea, I'll beg you excuse me because I want to see Mammy Beth."
"Mr Douglas, Ah is right heyah!"
The woman was old and walked with the difficulty of rheumatism; and Douglas swept her right into his arms.
"Mammy, I'm home, and I'm home for good!" he said "Well, barring the odd excursion! Come and give my wife a hug; you know Roberta, for surely you've heard about her from Amaryllis!"
"Sho' Ah have, honeychile" said Mammy enfolding Roberta into an embrace "And Ah'm that glad t'see Mr Douglas so happy - and ma Joseph lookin' weller than ever so long!"
"Comes of managing to split on that creature Gellibrand, ma" said Joseph. "Now what about that feast? Miss Preston, you'll do me the honour of letting me lead you in to eat?"
"I'd be delighted, Mr Mortimer" said Julia demurely.
Roberta raised an eyebrow.
THAT might be difficult to handle.
Well enough to worry about anything that happened in the future when it happened.
The feast was a spread.
The eyes of the children were wide!
"We got everything that sounded nice" said Mortimer "And a proper Christmas goose or several for this combined homecoming and Christmas feast with I don't know how many kinds of stuffing; and all the trimmings. Permit me to drink a toast to you all; and to the way we're going to lick this place into shape. To Oakridge Plantation and all its people!"
The toast was drunk rather gingerly.
The children were drinking it in ginger beer; and, it may be said, so was Roberta. She liked it better than wine or beer.
"To the Colonel!" called Joseph.
That was drunk to with more enthusiasm as the first swallow went down.
"And his wife and future generations!" added Amaryllis.
"Speech!" shouted someone.
"I don't want to be long winded or the food will get cold" said Mortimer "But things will change and you will be getting a better deal; the New Year will see a new broom. And you'll be up for shares to; so what you put in, you will get out. I'll explain that properly another time. Will my wife have a word or two?"
"I'm delighted to come home here" she said "And to know that we're all safe from Gellibrand; and I'm glad to be mistress of the house married to its rightful owner not, as my father initially planned, married to Gellibrand. However we do NOT want to waste the good food; so I urge you to dig in and enjoy; and note that we sent to England for the jams, preserves and jellies for your bread and to eat with the fowl. If I may offer a toast to Wilkin and Sons of Tiptree – to the Jelly Brand you can trust in!"
There was a moment's silence then a roar of laughter.
"Oh very well done my dear" said Mortimer. "You have made yourself theirs by sharing a joke. It was the worst pun I ever heard."
"Thank you Douglas" said Roberta.
Much later, after having decided to get acquainted with the big bed in the master bedroom, Mortimer listened as the long case clock struck midnight.
"Merry Christmas my darling" he said.
"Merry Christmas, Douglas" said Roberta. "Now how about you come right here and give me a Christmas present?"
Douglas Mortimer of Oakridge House, Oak Grove, North Carolina, home at last, did just that.
The End for Now
A/N sycamore to an American is the Platanus Americana, NOT what a Brit would call a sycamore which is the Acer pseudoplatanus. When in America use American nomenclature.